Mar 27 2013

How Cities Are Optimizing Public Transportation with Data from Mobile Devices

When properly analyzed, big data offers benefits to government and citizens.

Public transportation is fertile ground for technology. Rail and bus routes are expensive to operate, and the more they can be optimized to suit passengers’ schedules, the more money local governments can save and the faster citizens can reach their destinations.

Big data is the key to unlocking the hidden savings and benefits of public transportation but it has been incredibly difficult to track.

In partnership with IBM, both Dubuque, Iowa, and Istanbul, Turkey, are using software to leverage data from mobile devices in order to track commuters and improve transit services in their cities:

Until now, city officials based their knowledge of transportation activities on a wide variety of information–including everything from trip and ticket sales data, to surveys of transit passengers, to actual counts of people on a particular bus or subway car at a particular time in a particular place. The problem is, all of these types of information only provide fragments of the bigger picture. A survey of people on a particular bus route, for instance, only tells you about the people who are riding the bus–not about people who are moving in the same direction at the same time via other means who might ride the bus under other circumstances.

The Insights in Motion technology draws on transit data, geo-spacial information, census records, points-of-interest information and data from cell phones and smart phones. The telephone data is completely anonymous so no individual’s privacy is compromised. By tracking the movements of thousands of people from place to place and correlating it with time and the speed of travel, the system understands the mode of transportation people are using and knows where they’re traveling to and from–whether its home, work, school or shopping. For city planners, it’s a revelation. “It’s like a blind person for the first time opening their eyes and seeing,” says Milind Naphade, leader of the IBM Research project.

Read Insights in Motion: Deep Analytics Shows How Cities Really Work on Building a Smarter Planet.

There are, of course, skeptics in the technology community who believe this is a breach of privacy. Collecting the data anonymously is extremely important, but users could potentially be identified based on their travel routines. For every advantage that big data — and technology in general — provides, there is a trade-off, but it’s likely that the benefits of this data outweigh the extremely rare possibility that tracked users can be identified.

What do you think about big data’s role in creating smarter cities? Let us know in the Comments section.


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