Cities seeking more information to improve their services need look no farther than the nearest WiFi network.
Smartphone penetration in the developed world is reaching 70 percent, and most smartphone users have WiFi enabled in order to use their home and work networks. Every WiFi-enabled device continuously pings for available hotspots to connect to, and those pings offer a potential way to track the devices.
Here’s how it works: The media access control (MAC) address embedded into any wireless device cannot be changed by the user, and it doesn’t change with the cellphone operator. That MAC address is continuously broadcast when the smartphone user has WiFi enabled. As the device interacts with the city’s public and private WiFi networks, it provides the user’s approximate location, without revealing any personally identifiable information.
Smartphone data could provide cities with information about traffic and people’s usage of public transport in real time. It could populate databases of preferred routes, mixed use of private and public transport, average use of public parking, etc.
Many cities have also deployed outdoor WiFi networks for their municipal services, as shown in the WiFi equipment installed on a Barcelona street in the image below. These networks are continuously being used by the police, ambulances, garbage trucks, taxis, etc., plus sensors installed in different areas as part of machine-to-machine deployment. A significant number of cities are also offering free limited WiFi connection for residents and visitors.
A municipal WiFi unit sits atop a traffic light in Barcelona. (Source: Pablo Valerio)
Cities need this kind of information. Most municipalities currently use traffic cameras and aggregate information from smartcard usage on public transport to get a glimpse of people’s movements; but data is fragmented and limited. Having access to detailed information about how individuals use public transport and private vehicles could help design and optimize public transport, parking, and road use.
There has been some objection to using smartphone data from WiFi sources. Two years ago, an experiment was conducted at two malls in the US during the holiday season: Customers entering the malls were identified by their cellphone’s unique IDs and their movements tracked as they moved around visiting shops, food stands, etc.
The two malls conducting the “experiment” posted small notices on the message boards at the entrances, informing visitors of the tracking system. However, the only way to “opt out” of being tracked was to disconnect one’s cellphone. That started a discussion about privacy. After Senator Charles Schumer, D-NY, got involved and started to question it, the malls decided to “suspend” the system, although their original intent had been to conduct the tracking until New Year’s Day.
Using WiFi to collect anonymous data from smartphones is a viable solution. Cellular operations are already amassing huge databases of people’s locations; but access to that data is heavily regulated, and the industry has been criticized for trying to monetize it instead of sharing it with cities to improve their services.
But if cities can ensure complete anonymization of the smartphone data collected, the benefits could be enormous and the investment small. This solution could also encourage cities to deploy better WiFi networks for residents’ use, creating a win-win scenario for the city government and its citizens.
— Pablo Valerio, International Business & IT Consultant