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Transport for London collects anonymous data via Wi-Fi to improve Tube journeys

The company says individual customer data will never be shared and has worked with the Information Commissioner’s Office to ensure privacy concerns were addressed.

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TfL began collecting the data from passengers via wi-fi this week
TfL began collecting the data from passengers via wi-fi this week

Transport for London (TfL) has started collecting data anonymously through its wi-fi from customers’ mobile phones to improve the information it provides on London Underground.

 

It is being collected from 260 wi-fi enabled London Underground stations to better understand how people navigate the network. It will be used by TfL to provide better, more targeted information to its customers as they move around London, helping them better plan their route to avoid congestion and delays.

 

Addressing privacy concerns

 

The system, which has been developed in-house by TfL, will automatically depersonalise data, with no browsing or historical data collected from any devices. TfLsaid that individual customer data will never be shared and it has worked closely with the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) to ensure privacy concerns and transparency were actively considered and addressed.

 

A spokeserson explained it followed the ICO’s "Privacy by design" approaches to ensure its system does not identify any individuals. It set out how and why TfL collects the data on it website here.

 

In 2016, TfL held a four-week long pilot to test wi-fi data collection technology across 54 stations within Zones 1-4. When a device has wi-fi enabled, it will continually search for a wi-fi network by sending out a unique identifier – known as a media access control address – to nearby routers as customers pass through stations.

"Transparency, privacy and ethics need to be at the forefront of data work in society and we recognise the trust that our customers place in us"

This trial collected these wi-fi connection requests, which were automatically depersonalised, and were then analysed by TfL’s in-house analytics team to help understand where customers were at particular points of their journeys.

 

More than 509 million depersonalised pieces of data, were collected from 5.6 million mobile devices making around 42 million journeys which revealed a number of results to TfL that could not have been detected from ticketing data or paper-based surveys. For example, analysis showed that customers travelling between King’s Cross St Pancras and Waterloo take at least 18 different routes, with around 40 per cent of customers not taking one of the two most popular routes.

 

Digital mapping

 

Since the pilot, TfL has been working to understand how this data could be usefully used to provide customers with new, more tailored information about their journeys, both before they begin and while they are travelling.

 

Detailed digital mapping of all London Underground stations has also been undertaken to allow TfL to identify where wi-fi routers are located and to allow TfL to understand in detail how people move across the network and through stations.

 

"The benefits this new depersonalised dataset could unlock across our network – from providing customers with better alerts about overcrowding to helping station staff have a better understanding of the network in near-real time – are enormous,” said Lauren Sager Weinstein, chief data officer at Transport for London.

"There is real opportunity to better integrate data analytics in the transport sector and add genuine value from that information to transform consumer expectations"

“By better understanding overall patterns and flows, we can provide better information to our customers and help us plan and operate our transport network more effectively for all.

 

"While I am excited about the potential of this new dataset, I am equally mindful of the responsibility that comes with it. We take our customers’ privacy extremely seriously and will not identify individuals from the wi-fi data collected. Transparency, privacy and ethics need to be at the forefront of data work in society and we recognise the trust that our customers place in us, and safeguarding our customers’ data is absolutely fundamental."

 

Those customers who do not wish for their wi-fi connection data to be collected need to turn wi-fi off on their devices to opt out.

 

Rabih Arzouni, chief technology officer for transport, Fujitsu EMEIA, commented that with so much historical data on past journeys in their hands, more transport operators should take a leaf out of TfL’s book and work with partners – from government, city authorities to technology companies – to develop an understanding of how people get from one place to another and create the relevant services to align with this accordingly.

 

He added: “By keeping technology at the forefront of operators’ offerings, with the priority of improving journeys above all else, there is real opportunity to better integrate data analytics in the transport sector and add genuine value from that information to transform consumer expectations.

 

"‘Small’ improvements like these could be a game-changer to many commuters already frustrated with increasingly burdened transportation networks.”

 

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