In Rio de Janeiro most eyes are on the final, nail-biting matches of the World Cup. Over in the command center of the city’s department of transport though, they’re on a different set of screens altogether.
Planners there are watching the aggregated data feeds of thousands of smartphones being walked or driven around a city, thanks to two popular travel apps, Waze and Moovit.
The goal is traffic management, and it involves swapping data for data. More cities are lining up to get access, and while the data the apps are sharing is all anonymous for now, identifying details could get more specific if cities like what they see, and people become more comfortable with being monitored through their smartphones in return for incentives.
Rio is the first city in the world to collect real-time data both from drivers who use the Waze navigation app and pedestrians who use the public-transportation app Moovit, giving it an unprecedented view on thousands of moving points across the sprawling city. Rio is also talking to the popular cycling app Strava to start monitoring how cyclists are moving around the city too.
All three apps are popular, consumer services which, in the last few months, have found a new way to make their crowdsourced data useful to someone other than advertisers. While consumers use Waze and Moovit to get around, both companies are flipping the use case and turning those millions of users into a network of sensors that municipalities can tap into for a better view on traffic and hazards. Local LOCM +6.15% governments can also use these apps as a channel to send alerts.
On an average day in June, Rio’s transport planners could get an aggregated view of 110,000 drivers (half a million over the course of the month), and see nearly 60,000 incidents being reported each day – everything from built-up traffic, to hazards on the road, Waze says. Till now they’ve been relying on road cameras and other basic transport-department information.
What may be especially tantalizing for planners is the super-accurate read Waze gets on exactly where drivers are going, by pinging their phones’ GPS once every second. The app can tell how fast a driver is moving and even get a complete record of their driving history, according to Waze spokesperson Julie Mossler. (UPDATE: Since this story was first published Waze has asked to clarify that it separates users’ names and their 30-day driving info. The driving history is categorized under an alias.)
This passively-tracked data “is not something we share,” she adds. Waze, which Google GOOGL -2.09% bought last year for $1.3 billion, can turn the data spigots on and off through its application programing interface (API).
Waze has been sharing user data with Rio since summer 2013 and it just signed up the State of Florida. It says more departments of transport are in the pipeline.
But none of these partnerships are making Waze any money. The app’s currency of choice is data. “It’s a two-way street,” says Mossler. “Literally.”
In return for its user updates, Waze gets real-time information from Rio on highways, from road sensors and even from cameras, while Florida will give the app data on construction projects or city events.
Florida’s department of transport could not be reached for comment, but one of its spokesmen recently told a local news station: “We’re going to share our information, our camera images, all of our information that comes from the sensors on the roadway, and Waze is going to share its data with us.”
“This is a numbers game,” Mossler says. “We still want all the information we can get so that our app is as robust as possible.”
Moovit, which has 6.5 million registered users, has a similar data-swapping model in place and has partnered with even more cities than Waze.
“Right now we have four or five cities,” says Moovit CEO Nir Erez, adding that its initial partnerships were in Israel and Brazil.
Moovit’s user base is growing quickly after only launching in January. It’s currently the No. 1 transit app for smartphones in Brazil, and Erez claims to be getting a million downloads per month. The number of cities interested in tapping that information is growing too. (Moovit’s board member Uri Levine is also a co-founder of Waze.)
To get Moovit’s data, municipalities download a web interface that gives them an aggregated view of where pedestrians using Moovit are going. In return, the city feeds Moovit’s database with a stream of real-time GPS data for buses and trains, and can issue transport alerts to Moovit’s users. Erez notes the cities aren’t allowed to make “any sort of commercial approach to the users.”
Erez may be saving that for advertisers, an avenue he says he’s still exploring. For now getting data from cities is the bigger priority. It gives Moovit “a competitive advantage,” he says.
Cycling app Strava also recently started sharing its real-time user data as part of a paid-for service called Strava Metro.
Municipalities pay 80 cents a year for every Strava member being tracked. Metro only launched in May, but it already counts the state of Oregon; London, UK; Glasgow, Scotland; Queensland, Austalia and Evanston, Illinois as customers.
If talks go well Rio de Janeiro will join that list too.
The app, which says it has “millions” of active users around the world, can count on being able to license large data sets because users inherently agree to pass it on once they’ve downloaded the app.
“The default is opt in,” says Strava spokesman Michael Oldenberg. They have to go into the app’s settings to turn off the tracking.
Since most people don’t do that on Strava, local governments are getting access to the largest online database of cycling activity in the world, Oldenberg says. It’s also “the most active athlete network in the world… [which] includes over 300 billion GPS points,” stripped of identifying information.
Right now these apps are only sharing data that’s anonymous and aggregated. But that could change in the coming years as cities exploit the monitoring abilities of these apps to not just keep an eye on us, but tweak our behavior too.
Mossler suggests Waze could eventually become a conduit to incentivizing drivers to leave 30 minutes earlier to help keep the roads clearer, or assign drivers into car-pooling groups who could, in return, get gas credit from their local municipality.
“The intel we’re giving these cities can help them build smarter roads and smarter city plans,” says Mossler.
Privacy advocates will naturally want to keep a wary eye on what data is being fed to cities, and that it doesn’t leak or get somehow misused by City Hall. The data-sharing might not be ubiquitous enough for that to be a problem yet, and it should be noted that any kind of deal making with the public sector can get wrapped up in bureaucracy and take years to get off the ground.
For now Waze says it’s acting for the public good.
“What we realized as we’ve gotten older is we actually have a greater mission to help cities operate more efficiently,” Mossler says. “It’s this higher calling. We feel like we’re helping.”
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