blog | 23.11.2017 | David McArthur

Putting citizens’ data at the heart of city transport planning

The Citizens at the City’s Heart project (Catch! for short) was an exciting idea born out of a desire to generate better data for use in transport planning, and ultimately to make moving around cities easier.

It has now developed into an innovative project – funded by Innovate UK, led by Travelai and involving the Urban Big Data Centre, the Consumer Data Research Centre, Transport Systems Catapult, transportAPI, elgin, Coventry City Council, Ipswich Borough Council, Oxfordshire County Council, Leeds City Council, Newcastle City Council and the behaviouralist.

In this blog, Dr David McArthur explains the contribution that UBDC researchers are making to this collaborative project and how you can get involved.

New opportunities for tracking our travels

Traditionally, we have relied on surveying people to find out where they are travelling to, how they get there and what they do when they get to their destination. Gathering data in this way is expensive and relies on those surveyed accurately recalling all the details of their journey. This makes it harder for planners to come up with smart solutions.

Big data is offering new opportunities in tracking people’s movements. Mode-specific datasets such as cycling apps like Strava give us great data about what cyclists do, but don’t tell us much about what they do when they get off their bikes. Data gathered from mobile phone signals give us information about where people are travelling from and to, but don’t tell us much about how they get there or what routes they take. Data from sensors, such as traffic counters, tell us how many people pass a particular point at a particular time, but not much else.

Using an app to crowdsource better data

The Catch! project aims to improve the data gathering process by allowing people to collect their own data and make it available to their local authorities, in order to improve transport and planning in their area. The crowdsourced data is collected via an app that, with user consent, tracks the location of the user and what mode of transport they are using – all while providing a very useful journey planner! The app uses GPS signals, as well as some clever machine learning algorithms that use the phone’s sensors to guess what mode of transport is being used. This algorithm makes use of the way that our mobile phones are moved around differently and are travelling at different speeds when we walk compared to when we’re in a car or on a train.

Making sense of the data and ensuring privacy is protected

Having millions of GPS points isn’t particularly useful for planners. What they need is more aggregate information about who is travelling, their destination, the mode of transport used, and the purpose of their trip. In addition, the raw GPS data that is collected is highly sensitive as it reveals information about the people volunteering their data.

This is where the UBDC’s expertise comes in. Our role in the project has been focussed on making sense of the GPS points and ensuring people’s identities are protected. We have experience in this field gained from our work with the GPS data collected as part of the integrated Multimedia City Data (iMCD) project. For Catch!, this involved:

  • Using a technique called ‘map matching’ to work out what transport infrastructure (e.g. roads) people were using
  • Working out what locations were visited using stop detection and semantic annotation
  • Anonymising the data using a variety of techniques including grid masking and blurring.

The resulting data is not only in a useful format for planners but also in a format that protects the identity of the app user.

How you can get involved

The beta version of the app can be downloaded now from the App Store and Google Play and allows you to plan routes anywhere in the UK, see nearby travel options and save your favourite transport hubs and locations. Please download the app if you are interested in helping us to build a detailed picture of how your community travels that can be used by local authorities and transport providers to improve systems and services for you.

With the deadline for the project extended and work continuing, look out for more project updates on this blog!

David McArthur

Dr David McArthur is the Associate Director for Training and Capacity Building at UBDC and is a Senior Lecturer in Transport Studies at the University of Glasgow.

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