Transport for London has announced plans to follow Underground users around the network using Wi-Fi data from their personal devices.
From July 8 this year, the capital’s transportation authority says it’ll take the Waze approach to crowdsourcing passenger traffic across the network.
The trial will last for a month, across 54 stations, with hopes the scheme will eventually be able to provide commuters with insight into how crowded a particular station or service is at any given time.
So, for example, if you’re walking towards a platform and receive an alert pertaining to overcrowding, you might hold back from the next available train and wait for the one coming along the line a couple of minutes later.
The trial could also provide TfL with a greater dataset to work from when planning timetables, so on the surface could provide some tangible benefits for commuters.
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“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,” says Lauren Sager Weinstein, TfL’s chief data officer. “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.”
Naturally, there are privacy concerns with such vast harvesting of location data, so passengers will be able to opt out by turning off their Wi-Fi while riding on the tube. Not exactly the best solution, considering the benefits of actually using the Wi-Fi network while underground.
It’s not as if avoiding connecting to the tube Wi-Fi networks will relieve you from the tracking either, because TfL is using your device’s MAC address to track you.
For what it’s worth, TfL says “individual customer data will never be shared and customers will not be personally identified,” while the data that can’t identify you will be kept on file for two years. There’s also the spectre of use for advertising purposes to deal with here, because TfL plans to use the data to sell ads based on footfall. You sense that could actually be the key motive here, but that’s just conjecture on our part.
TfL previously conducted a Wi-Fi based trial in 2016, which it says led to providing customers with more tailored information about their journeys.