Every day, your travel may be recorded, thanks to the apps on your mobile communication device.
Smart phone apps, including those for weather, shopping, and social connection, transmit location information from tens of millions of devices in the U.S. every minute of every day. Companies collect the data from app developers and sell it for a variety of uses, and there’s no shortage of data shoppers out there, comprising a huge commercial enterprise built exclusively around knowing exactly where you are all the time. That mobile location industry began as a way to target advertisements for various businesses, but it’s evolved into something much bigger – and for many people, something much more intrusive and worrisome.
A 2016 Pew Research study found that most Americans are increasingly nervous about losing control of their personally identifiable information.
But interest in your minute-by-minute whereabouts isn’t limited to those who want you to buy their sandwiches or sporting goods. Researchers, too, want to know where you go, how you get there (car, bus, subway, walk, bike, or scooter), the route you choose, and how long the trip takes.
Given the concerns over data privacy, we understand if you’re not entirely okay with that at first blush. So, we’d like to explain why what seems like needless nosiness is actually good for all of us in the long run. Especially when it comes to your tax money.
Let’s begin with a simple distinction. There are two kinds of groups wanting to know about how and where you travel every day (and when and for how long): Those trying to sell you something, and those trying to give you something.
In the first group are companies buying your location data so they can entice you to visit certain retailers, restaurants, or other establishments. The second group includes transportation researchers and planners who use travel info to better manage traffic and help inform billions of dollars in future investments. (That’s us). And by the way, your individual travel data by itself is of little value to us, but anonymously combined with info from thousands or millions of other travelers, it’s a gold mine of insight to identify and address traffic inefficiencies.
Traffic congestion costs the U.S. more than $160 billion every year (according to the Texas A&M Transportation Institute), and crash expenses exceed $800 billion (according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration). Managing growth requires that we provide travelers with more and better transportation options. That’s a very expensive undertaking, so it’s vital that our future transportation systems operate in ways that promise a high investment return for both efficiency and safety. To ensure that, transportation departments need to know everything possible about the trips people take, including when and where and how they make those trips.
We’ve actually been collecting traveler information (known in geek speak as “origin-destination data”) for decades, simply by asking people to fill out surveys, or interviewing them at places like highway rest stops. For a time, that worked pretty well. But it’s getting much more costly (not to mention less practical and safe) to collect information directly from travelers. Modern data collection methods yield at least ten times the information we can extract from manual collection, at a fraction of the cost.
The clear answer to our data dilemma is to collect what we need through crowd-sourced methods, the same way it’s done by people trying to sell you something. But at every turn, we are mindful and respectful of your privacy. Honestly, we’re only interested in where and how the dots on the map move throughout the day. We have zero interest in who the dots represent.
A personal right to privacy isn’t spelled out in the U.S. Constitution, but it’s generally accepted as something we feel is owed to us. And to find technology and privacy at a crossroads is actually nothing new. Long before he became a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Louis Brandeis witnessed the emergence of technology (in the form of the portable camera) and argued “for the protection of the person and for securing to the individual the right to be let alone.”
There are ways to honor that right while at the same time gathering the information we need to make smart and frugal transportation planning decisions. To do so involves a balancing act.
One thing that smart phone users can do is be more informed consumers, limiting how much their apps can trace. And in fact, even if every single person who used a smart phone turned off half of their location-enabling apps, we would still have more than enough pings to do our analysis and planning work.
One thing that transportation professionals can do – as we do now – is ensure that the information we use is anonymous, thoroughly scrubbed of any personal identifiers. Again, all we care about is where the dots on the map go; whether you’re associated with one of those dots is none of our business.
Just remember, there are two kinds of organizations wanting to know about where you drive every day. There are those that want to help you spend your money, and those that want to help you save it. Count us in group number 2.
Ed Hard is a research scientist at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. Shawn Turner is a senior research engineer at TTI, and Michael Martin is an assistant research scientist at TTI.