From subways to potholes: Using cell phone data to track services

Despite customer concerns about sharing their location with cell phone providers, several organizations are using crowdsourced geolocation data to track public services. In New York, web development company Densebrain is analyzing cell phone data to track Metropolitan Transportation Authority subway services. According to The New York Times, the project looks for disruptions in cell phone service accompanied by significant changes in location: “If a phone located near Times Square suddenly loses service and reconnects at Prince Street and Broadway 15 minutes later, then it has almost certainly traveled there using the N or R trains.” With enough data points, the company hopes that its algorithm would present a picture of real-time subway system performance.

In Boston (MA), city officials are working on an application called StreetBump, which would combine information from a phone’s accelerometer and GPS to determine when a driver hits a pothole and transmit that information to city officials — who presumably would dispatch a crew to fix the street. For now, the app is still a prototype that is collecting data but, according to the project’s web page, “cannot yet distinguish between the movement created when a car hits a pothole and a person putting their phone in their pocket.” A challenge to make the data usable is underway. Link to full story in The New York Times.

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