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Portland pilots Sidewalk Labs’ mobile location data software

The tool uses location data to model how people travel in cities.


Sidewalk Labs has confirmed to SmartCitiesWorld that it is piloting its Replica location data software in Portland, Oregon.


Replica uses de-identified mobile location data from smartphones and apps, along with aggregate demographic information, to give planning agencies information on how, when and why people travel in urban areas.


Replica creates a “synthetic population” – a virtual population that is statistically representative of the real population.


The Replica site explains: “We then give each person in the virtual population a travel behaviour model and use computer simulation to generate a week of activities – helping us confidently replicate trip patterns across a city or metro area.”



Portland City Council approved the $457,000 pilot in December, to be administered by the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT), Portland Metro and TriMet. The trial is set to last for a year.


“We’ll be looking to Replica to explore a number of questions about major issues in our region like equity, safety, and congestion,” Eliot Rose, technology strategist at Portland’s Metro, told GeekWire.


Sidewalk Labs, which is owned by Google parent company Alphabet, told SmartCitiesWorld there are “about a half dozen other public sector customers using Replica," including pilots in Kansas City and Chicago.


Data concerns


Alongside broader questions about the use of data and the role of big technology companies in cities, there are concerns about how Sidewalk Labs collects data and ensures that individual privacy is properly protected.


According to Replica’s website, the tool uses “cellphone location data covering a small percentage of the population” as well as “location data collected by third-party mobile apps” and “aggregate census information and other sources”. Sidewalk Labs declined to provide more specifics about this but has stressed that the data is de-identified.


In a blog post last year, Sidewalk Labs’ Nick Bowden wrote: "There are many apps and companies that collect data about your location history and travel patterns via your smartphone. The problem is this data often contains personal information.


Sidewalk Labs stresses that it is "not interested in the movement of individuals; we are interested in the collective movement of a particular place".


"Replica starts with data that has already been de-identified, meaning we never handle the original, identifiable information. We are not interested in the movement of individuals; we are interested in the collective movement of a particular place.”


However, a number of studies have suggested that location data can be re-identifiable.


A Portland Bureau of Transportation spokesperson noted that the contract with Sidewalk Labs prevents law enforcement or any entities other than Metro, PBOT or TriMet from accessing Replica software or data.


The city will not receive any actual mobile location data through the pilot but will run queries through an online platform.



The latest announcement comes amidst controversy around Sidewalk Labs’ smart city development in Toronto.


The Waterfront Toronto project has faced ongoing questions about how data will be collected and managed at the site, as well as criticism about the transparency of the citizen consultation process and the scope of the development Sidewalk Labs is undertaking.


The Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) is suing Waterfront Toronto and the federal, provincial and municipal governments over the Sidewalk Labs smart city project.


In February, a group of Toronto citizens launched a public #BlockSidewalk campaign to stop Sidewalk Labs from going ahead with its proposal for the downtown Toronto development.


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