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Wi-Fi use + big data analytics = better passenger journeys in London?

Posted on Sep 11, 2017

Busiest times at Oxford Circus Station using tiketing and Wi-Fi data (Courtesy of TfL) "...could enable us to map the journey patterns of millions of passengers and understand in much greater detail how people move around..."

A four week trial analysing Wi-Fi data on the London Underground has led to some fascinating insights and a focus on making this a permanent tool in gaining a better understanding into how passengers navigate the network. The Transport for London (TfL) pilot, which ran between November and December last year, studied depersonalised Wi-Fi connection and focused on 54 stations within Zones 1-4 and saw more than 509 million depersonalised 'probing requests', or pieces of data, collected from 5.6 million mobile devices making around 42 million journeys. The data collected was depersonalised, so that no individuals could be identified, and no browsing data was collected from devices. No data collected through the trial was made available to any third parties, and the pilot included clear communication with customers about how to opt out should they wish to do so.

These journeys were analysed by TfL's in-house analytics team and broken into different aggregated 'movement types' to help understand what customers were doing at particular points of their journeys - such as entering or exiting a station, changing between lines or just passing through the station while on a train.

By using this data, TfL was able to get a much more accurate understanding of how people move through stations, interchange between services and how crowding develops.

Val Shawcross ( @ValShawcross ) , Deputy Mayor for Transport, said: "We're determined to use the latest technology to improve the experience of every passenger using transport in London, and I'm delighted the trial has been a success. The analysis of secure, depersonalised Wi-Fi data could enable us to map the journey patterns of millions of passengers and understand in much greater detail how people move around our transport network. It will provide real benefits helping TfL tackle overcrowding, provide more information for passengers about their best journey route, and help us prioritise new investment where it's most needed."

The pilot revealed a number of results that could not have been detected from ticketing data or paper-based surveys. For example, analysis showed that customers travelling between King's Cross St Pancras and Waterloo take at least 18 different routes, with around 40% of customers observed not taking one of the two most popular routes.

How do people travel between King's Cross St. Pancras and Waterloo? 

Route options between Waterloo and Kings Cross (Courtesy of TfL)

The data collected through the Wi-Fi pilot could have a number of benefits for TfL and its customers, including:

  • Allowing staff to better inform customers of the best way to avoid disruption or unnecessary crowding
  • Helping customers plan the route that best suits them - whether based on travel time, crowding or walking distance
  • Enabling greater sophistication in proving real-time information to customers as they travel across London
  • Helping further prioritise transport investment to improve services and address regular congestion points - ensuring the maximum benefits to customers
  • Providing a better insight on customer flows which could increase commercial revenue from companies which advertise or rent retail units on the transport network

While the usual ticketing data for major interchange stations such as Oxford Circus can show the levels of people entering and exiting the stations, it cannot show the huge numbers of people interchanging during peak hours, or precise local areas where crowding occurs on platforms or around escalators, whereas Wi-Fi data can.

How many passengers take the shortest route through Euston station? 

How customers move through Bank Station (Courtesy of TfL)

Privacy concerns are a major factor for both those whose data is being assessed and those doing the analysis.

Dr Hannah Fry ( @FryRsquared ) from the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis at University College London, said of the study: As a Londoner whose journeys are no doubt included in the data collected, I was impressed by how far TfL have gone to take how we feel about our privacy seriously, at every stage they have preserved our anonymity, been transparent about the way the data is used and offered us the option to opt out. Their study serves as an exemplary model of how to treat your customers in the era of big data."

TfL has now begun discussions with key stakeholders, including the Information Commissioner's Office, privacy campaigners and consumer groups about how this data collection could be undertaken on a permanent basis, possibly across the full Tube network.

Click here to get your copy of our 25th digital guide - New frontiers in transport ticketing.Lauren Sager Weinstein ( @laurenrsw ) Chief Data Officer at Transport for London, added: "We are now working closely with key stakeholders to examine our next steps and, as with the pilot, will keep our customers informed while also respecting their privacy and offering a way to opt-out should they wish."

For more information, and to download the full report, please read the full report here.  


For passenger Wi-fi and rail innovations this... 

London Underground are now tracking passenger wi-fi connections to help improve operations.

TfL "keen to offer full mobile coverage" for London's commuters.

How an open data commitment is delivering rewards for London transport.

The international partnership delivering passenger Wi-Fi to the St. Petersburg Metro. 

Topics: Passenger Information Systems, SRW Featured

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About the Author

Luke Upton
Luke Upton
Luke has edited this site since its launch and previously worked for b2b media companies across industries including energy, advertising and sport. His role includes writing, editing and commissioning...read more