Purdue students cause traffic. City asks if they can solve it.

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West Lafayette, Indiana, plans to build on its “smart” camera system to improve road safety when the rural city’s population booms during Purdue University’s school year, the university announced Friday.

To find a solution, the city of roughly 50,000 residents is hosting a competition asking teams of students, researchers, faculty and small businesses to address the risks posed by increases in traffic during the school year and university events, as well as city gatherings like festivals. Three finalists, to be selected next January, will gain access to historical and real-time traffic data from 19 cameras to develop prototypes.

Organizers — which include the Indiana 5G Zone, a local innovation lab; and US Ignite, a National Science Foundation-funded nonprofit — said participants might use technology like machine learning or data analytics to better understand traffic congestion and how pedestrians affect traffic flow.

“As we increase our infrastructure for multimodal traffic, it’s important to create safe intersections between pedestrians, bikes, scooters busies vehicles and any future transportation technology,” Mayor John Dennis said in a video announcing the challenge, adding that the city’s population doubles when Purdue is in session.

The challenge focuses on traffic in Discovery Park, a 400-acre area that includes research labs, corporate offices and homes that aims to tap into the commercialization efforts around the university’s research.

Applicants can test their ideas using high-speed internet at Discovery Park’s “Lab to Life” Testbed on the Purdue University campus, which the university announced in August. The three finalists are then to receive $5,000, technical support from the project’s organizing partners and advice from companies including AT&T and Cisco.

The team picked to develop a road safety pilot next year, planned to run from next May until the end of 2022, will also win $10,000 and support from the Purdue Foundry, an entrepreneurship hub designed to launch start-ups from university research.

Many other state and local governments are investing in technology to manage traffic and improve roadway safety. Michigan’s economic development corporation awarded more than $30,000 in grants last year funding mobility and safety technology, including an app that analyzes traffic around school pick-up times. The City of Virginia Beach, Virginia, partnered with the navigation app Waze in 2019 to share traffic and construction data with its users using the city’s traffic sensors.

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