- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Amid concerns of Big Data tracking people’s movements, an Arizona city has launched a program to track its residents’ movements — in the name of reducing traffic congestion.

Officials in Flagstaff say participation in the program is voluntary and anonymous. It relies on cellphone location data that’s collected and analyzed by a private company, which then sells the information to transportation officials to operate the program.

“It is an exciting and positive use of new technology,” David Wessel, manager of the Flagstaff Metropolitan Planning Organization, told The Washington Times. “When we have a clearer picture of our traffic and travel patterns, our ability to tailor our transportation services is greatly enchanted.”

StreetLight Data, a San Francisco-based analytics firm, gathers and crunches data swept up from apps that request user permission to access a smartphone’s location.

Data and navigation analytics are gathered from a range of sources, including fitness trackers and dating and weather apps. The firm then blends in local government traffic information and census data to predict traffic flow.

Laura Schewel, founder and CEO of Streetlight Data, has said her firm can “tell who’s on the road, where they live, how frequently they make this trip, and whether or not they are on vacation.”

While urban planners herald the “smart cities movement” for using private data to address public issues, critics say such activities highlight threats to privacy posed by firms exploiting Big Data to discern personal habits.

“Despite the considerable enthusiasm for big data-driven projects and use cases, big data also presents a range of evolving challenges from a security and privacy standpoint,” information security expert Chris Dimitriadis wrote this week in CSO Online, a cybersecurity journal.

He urged organizations to “avoid taking shortcuts in their data governance that could open the door to a large-scale breach.”

Just last month, members of Congress grilled top executives of major tech companies over issues of personal privacy, network security and data breaches.

In Flagstaff, a city of almost 72,000, officials are welcoming Big Data as a budget friendly way to improve public services.

Mr. Wessel said StreetLight Data has allowed engineers to better see how buses and other vehicles travel to hospitals and malls, and how snow affects traffic. New traffic and transit patterns are on the horizon, he said.

Other StreetLight Data projects in North America have been reported success, including Virginia, Minnesota, Ohio, Florida, New York City and Toronto.

Advocates of Big Data say privacy concerns should be viewed in context of how privacy is evolving in the internet age. The number of smartphones that allow Google Maps to access private location, for instance, runs at 30 to 60 percent of all smartphone users, industry insiders say.

That data tumbles into the billions of bits of private information Google complies every day.

“People are increasingly comfortable with the data part [of location access],” said Scott Relf, co-founder and CEO of the photo-sharing app PikMobile.

Mr. Relf added that cities, towns and states experimenting with Big Data should consider public civics lessons to explain how the collected data can be used to improve society.

“Many people, especially younger people, would see all this as a positive way to help their communities, if it were explained clearly,” he said.

• Dan Boylan can be reached at dboylan@washingtontimes.com.

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