In the autumn of 2016, Transport for London (TfL) started tracking its passengers. A month long trial at 54 stations used Wi-Fi signals from phones and other devices to harvest depersonalised data about where, when and how people were using the tube.
TfL has now decided to rollout the scheme across the whole Underground network. Starting on July 8 2019, every device will be tracked as people complete their journeys. The data harvested could lead directly to improvements in how the tube runs and operates, by giving the transport body a much more detailed insight into customer behaviour than has previously been available.
“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.”
The system will use Wi-Fi beacons that are already present in 260 TfL-managed tube stations. As well as serving up internet access, the beacons will log the unique hardware addresses – or MAC addresses – of every device they sniff out, whether those devices are connected to Wi-Fi or not. The same technology is already in use in many shopping malls, museums and other public spaces, which use the data for similar purposes.