London Underground

Transport for London to track Tube users via wifi

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Nicola Byrne

Commuters on the London Underground will have their mobile wifi signals tracked by Transport for London from July.

The depersonalised data collection, harnessed from more than 260 stations, will be used to help TfL improve the information it provides to its customers, reduce overcrowding, prioritise investment and lead to improvements in how the tube operates.

The data will also provide commercial benefits for TfL, by allowing the government body to understand customer flows to highlight the effectiveness of its advertising assets. By being able to demonstrate this, TfL hopes to improve commercial revenue to reinvest back into the network.

Tfl Data Collection

The signage put up during the four-week long pilot in 2016

Lauren Sager Weinstein, chief data officer at Transport for London, said the benefits the dataset could unlock are “enormous”, and whilst she is excited about the potential, she’s “equally mindful of the responsibility that comes with it.”

She added: “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.”

The system, developed in-house by TfL, will automatically depersonalise data, with no browsing or historical data collected from any devices. The organisation has worked closely with the Information Commissioner’s Office to ensure privacy concerns and transparency were addressed.

Clear signage will be installed across all stations to inform customers ahead of the data collection, and to advise them to turn off their wifi if they wish to opt out.

Potential benefits:

  • Providing crowding data via the TfL website to help customers better plan their route across London
  • Incorporating crowding data into TfL’s free open-data API, which could allow app developers, academics and businesses to further utilise the data for new products and services
  • Early warning via the TfL website and social media channels about congestion at ticket halls or platforms, to allow customers to alter their route

The scheme was originally piloted in 2016 for a four-week long pilot across 54 stations, with more than 509 million pieces of data collected from 5.6 million mobile devices.

TfL currently uses data from its ticketing system, and while accurate for people entering and exiting the stations, the data cannot show the flow of movement through a station.

Digital mapping of all London Underground stations has also been undertaken to allow TfL to identify where wifi routers are located.

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