London to start collecting passenger data to improve the Underground

Transport for London will begin collection of depersonalised data from passenger's WiFi connections from July

TfL will collect data from passengers WiFi connections to help manage congestion and route planning.
TfL will collect data from passengers WiFi connections to help manage congestion and route planning.

Transport for London (TfL) is set to collect data using passenger’s WiFi to reduce crowding and improve services on London’s transport network.

TfL, which is responsible for London Underground and the city’s bus network, will begin data collection from passenger’s WiFi in July.

The agency says it will be able to use the data to create benefits to travellers, such as better alerts about delays and congestion within stations later in the year.

Data will collected in a secure manner, and customers will not be personally identified by the data, TfL said. The agency worked closely with the Information Commissioner's Office to ensure privacy concerns and transparency were actively considered and addressed, it added.

The program builds on a pilot project to collect depersonalised Wi-Fi data which was conducted in 2016. The pilot demonstrated how technology could be used to reduce crowding and prioritise transport investment.

Lauren Sager Weinstein, Chief Data Officer at Transport for London said: “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. 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.”

The project expands on a pilot conducted in 2016.

The 2016 pilot was held at 54 Underground stations over four weeks. 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.

Among the benefits that TfL expects to gain from the full-scale program are provision of better data on crowding and congestion to the TfL website, so passengers can plan better routes; early warning of congestion through the website and social media; and better information for station staff to support customers.

TfL will also use the data to better understand customer flows throughout stations, highlighting the effectiveness and accountability of its advertising estate based on actual customer volumes. Being able to reliably demonstrate this should improve commercial revenue, which can then be reinvested back into the transport network.

The agency said it will also incorporate the data into its free open-data API, to allow third parties to use the data to develop services and research.

Clear signage, based on TfL's signs on CCTV across the network, will shortly be installed across the London Underground network, ahead of the start of data collection, to inform customers and direct them to a web page with more information, including how data collected through this technology will be automatically depersonalised and securely stored. Following the start of collection on 8 July 2019, any customers who do not wish for their Wi-Fi connection data to be collected will need to turn Wi-Fi off on their devices in order to opt out.

London's Chief Digital Officer, Theo Blackwell, said: “TfL is a world leader in the use of data to improve services. Today nearly half of all Londoners use an app derived from TfL's open data feeds. Greater insight into how people use the Tube helps better transport planning but also enables the development of new apps to give customers further advance information about their planned journey in order to plan their best, and least congested route.”

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