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TfL seeking permanent customer wi-fi data collection on the Tube

TfL is looking to collect wi-fi data from passengers on a permanent basis across the full Tube network after a four-week trial revealed findings and patterns that could not be detected solely from ticketing data or paper-based surveys.

For example, data collected in that short period of time already managed to show commuters are getting 18 different routes between King’s Cross St Pancras and Waterloo – only 60% of which are one of the two most efficient choices.

The pilot, which ran from November to December last year, collected what TfL stressed was entirely depersonalised data from 5.6 million devices making around 42 million journeys across 54 stations. No individuals could actually be identified from this and no browsing data was recorded or made available to third parties.

The tracked journeys were then analysed by TfL’s in-house analytics team and broke into different aggregated ‘movement types’ to understand what passengers were doing at particular points in their journey, such as entering or exiting a station, changing between lines or passing through the station while onboard a train.

Sue Daley, head of programme for cloud, data, analytics and AI at techUK, argued that the pilot is a “powerful example of how data collection and analysis can make a real difference to our everyday lives”.

“By applying big data analytics and machine learning technologies, TfL gained real-time understanding of how people are using the capital’s transport system and these insights will help reduce overcrowding, improve service efficiency and customise information for travellers,” she added. “The transparency and openness shown by TfL is to be applauded. The steps taken to make customers aware of the data collection and its purpose should be seen as a blueprint for others.”

After highlighting trends beyond those collected by ticketing systems or surveys, TfL is now keen to turn the pilot into a full-time venture. It has kicked off discussions with stakeholders, including the Information Commissioner’s Office, privacy campaigners and consumer groups about how this data collection could be undertaken permanently – and possibly across the whole of the Underground network.

“Technology is transforming our lives, from how we work and enjoy our leisure time to the way we travel,” explained Lauren Sager Weinstein, the organisation’s chief data officer. “This pilot has revealed useful insights into how people criss-cross London using the Tube, and the potential benefits this depersonalised data could unlock, from providing better customer data to helping address overcrowding, are enormous.

“We are now working closely with key stakeholders to examine our next steps and, as with the pilot, will keep our customers informed while also respecting their privacy and offering a way to opt-out should they wish.”

Amongst the benefits this could bring are the ability to help customers plan the best possible route; allow staff to inform customers of how to avoid disruption or unnecessary crowding; enable greater sophistication in real-time information provision; address regulator congestion points; and provide better customer flow insights.

Deputy mayor for transport Val Shawcross said she was delighted the pilot had been a success, with the analysis of secure wi-fi data creating the potential to allow TfL to map out journey patterns for millions of daily travellers.

“It will provide real benefits helping TfL tackle overcrowding, provide more information for passengers about their best journey route, and help us prioritise new investment where it's most needed,” argued Shawcross.

Dr Hannah Fry, from the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis at University College London, added that wi-fi data offers a “completely new way” of viewing what’s happening underground, exposing the network’s pinch points and helping understand how and why overcrowding happens.

(Top image c. william87)


Lutz   11/09/2017 at 18:06

An illustration of one of the reasons transport companies are keen to introduce free wifi; Would be interested to know if they are collecting user information as well - the type that becomes available from certain wifi products - and how this data is treated if it is captured.

James Miller   12/09/2017 at 01:16

I have been analysing large databases for many years and have found that aummary data perhaps on a day of the week/hour of the day basis can give a valuable insight and iften unexpected results. Explaining often keads to new ways of doing things. The behaviour of the herd is nuch more important than of any individual

Gabriel Oaks   12/09/2017 at 12:24

@ Data collected in that short period of time already managed to show commuters are getting 18 different routes between King’s Cross St Pancras and Waterloo – only 60% of which are one of the two most efficient choices. Most efficient for whom? As a traveller with mobility impairment I'd choose a route that is easiest for me even though it would be 'less efficient' for others. Such data may form a useful starting point but it needs to be backed up by further research in order to understand why 40% feel other routes have greater viability.

Brian Armitage   12/09/2017 at 12:24

Fortunately, TfL did it right: they used ICO guidelines to protect users' privacy by grabbing and tracking MAC addresses and then depersonalized them using a salt which then discarded at the end of each day. That in effect makes it impossible to know what the original MAC address was. The data was then stored on a restricted area of a secure server with limited access and whose users all had privacy and data protection training. The server was not linked to any customer data and there was a strict no-data-sharing policy. TfL also put up posters at every station being tracked and gave people a simple opt-out.

Brian Armitage   12/09/2017 at 12:27

@Gabriel, that said you'd be hard-pushed to find a reason for going Waterloo - London Bridge - Bank - Liverpool Street - King's Cross as 0.1% of the study did.

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