Ways smart cities derive data insight from mainstream apps

My friend John still waits in the incredibly long cash payment line at the MassPike toll booths because he’s under the illusion that he’ll remain anonymous on the state’s databases as opposed to if he had taken FastLane. I’ve asked him if he’s ever noticed the license plate camera in the cash lane, but for some reason he would rather have pictures taken than to identify himself with both picture and RFID data!

I asked John if he ever uses Uber or Lyft in his travels, and he confirmed that he’s a power user.

Institutional paranoia runs rampant related to what Big Brother is doing with your personal data. The debate rages among privacy groups over whether the mere collection of sanitized metadata is any more ethical than personally identifiable data. Even some of the more privacy-oriented tend to rationalize the use of this data grab to thwart terrorist plots on the homeland.

So how do citizens feel about their mainstream app producers being in cahoots with city governments on data gathering?

On the other hand, with world urban populations expected to increase from 54% to 66% by 2050, how do cities become more data driven in anticipation of this huge influx of residents?

The apps-driven debate started with Uber’s data trade agreement with the City of Boston back in January. According to the agreement, Uber “will provide Boston with quarterly, anonymous data about the duration, general locations, and times of rides that start or end in the city.”

Beyond the debate on whether this municipal-private data agreement is crossing privacy lines, this deal is more an indicator of how urban data will need to be collected in a new transportation era where fewer city dwellers own their own vehicles.

Urban data scientists are identifying what “mobility events” lead up to that specific inflection point where urban millennials decide they can give up the vehicle they brought from their family homestead in suburbs or from college. As such, cities need to follow the migration away from traditional records stored at motor vehicle registries to alternate mobility data exhaust coming from ride-share apps.

Going one step beyond “transportation vehicle of choice,” cities are focusing on apps capturing how private and public transportation are navigating streets on a 24-hour basis. Enter the Waze data-share agreements with cities and counties whereby data on traffic patterns and road conditions from their users’ apps will be shared with local and regional governments.

The Waze agreement not only provides valuable transportation and emergency preparedness planning insight to the city, but it also serves as the basis for a number of Open Data initiatives whereby the city broadcasts road closure and congestion alerts to the citizenry. But yet again privacy advocates like the ACLU feel this may still be going to far.

Ironically Waze has come under pressure from law enforcement in Los Angeles for “giving intel to the bad guys” with its app showing where police might be lurking with speed traps or road stops. Even more ironic is that the mayor of LA signed a data transfer deal with Waze for traffic insight.

The most recent urban data share play reflects the incredibly rapid growth of bicycle riding and sharing in urban areas. Government officials in Oregon were concerned that they had very few real-time data points on walking and cycling patterns. They turned to the popular Strava bicycling app. For $20,000 a year, transportation planners and others can access Strava Metro, which provides an unprecedented look at where and how people are biking using what the Strava data folks refer to as “ground truth.”

This is just the tip of the data transfer movement in the mobility sector. Just think about the possibilities of integrating other non-transport-related apps like Yelp and Apple Health to get what would be, for some, a frightening multi-channel view of the new urban citizenship.


  1. An interesting article. I’m often worried about privacy and in particular where the data I provide is used but I think it’s also difficult for anyone who uses any sort of “free” on-line service to prevent data from being used or shared. In fact I think it should be expected; after all, these services are not really free are they? We are paying with data.

    The important elements are how that data is used, sorted and shared and also the quality of the service that is being offered.

    It’s interesting that you mention Waze as this is an application that I have just recently started to use after looking for a better satnav app for a recent trip. I have found this application very useful personally and can see how the data collected by the many “Wazers” could have many positive uses. In the case of this app, I’m happy paying with my data as the service I get from Waze has been very useful to me so far.

    If we are to use these types of services then we have to trust that the data we provide is used responsibly, which of course in some cases it is not which is where the concerns increase.


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