A recent news story from the Ottawa area raises interesting questions about big data, smart cities, and citizen engagement. The CBC reported that Ottawa and Gatineau have contracted with Strava, a private sector company to purchase data on cycling activity in their municipal boundaries. Strava makes a fitness app that can be downloaded for free onto a smart phone or other GPS-enabled device. The app uses the device’s GPS capabilities to gather data about the users’ routes travelled. Users then upload their data to Strava to view the data about their activities. Interested municipalities can contract with Strava Metro for aggregate de-identified data regarding users’ cycling patterns over a period of time (Ottawa and Gatineau have apparently contracted for 2 years’ worth of data). According to the news story, their goal is to use this data in planning for more bike-friendly cities.
On the face of it, this sounds like an interesting idea with a good objective in mind. And arguably, while the cities might create their own cycling apps to gather similar data, it might be cheaper in the end for them to contract for the Strava data rather than to design and then promote the use of theirs own apps. But before cities jump on board with such projects, there are a number of issues that need to be taken into account.
One of the most important issues, of course, is the quality of the data that will be provided to the city, and its suitability for planning purposes. The data sold to the city will only be gathered from those cyclists who carry GPS-enabled devices, and who use the Strava app. This raises the question of whether some cyclists – those, for example, who use bikes to get around to work, school or to run errands and who aren’t interested in fitness apps – will not be included in planning exercises aimed at determining where to add bike paths or bike lanes. Is the data most likely to come from spandex-wearing, affluent, hard core recreational cyclists than from other members of the cycling community? The cycling advocacy group Citizens for Safe Cycling in Ottawa is encouraging the public to use the app to help the data-gathering exercise. Interestingly, this group acknowledges that the typical Strava user is not necessarily representative of the average Ottawa cyclist. This is in part why they are encouraging a broader public use of the app. They express the view that some data is better than no data. Nevertheless, it is fair to ask whether this is an appropriate data set to use in urban planning. What other data will be needed to correct for its incompleteness, and are there plans in place to gather this data? What will the city really know about who is using the app and who is not? The purchased data will be deidentified and aggregated. Will the city have any idea of the demographic it represents? Still on the issue of data quality, it should be noted that some Strava users make use of the apps’ features to ride routes that create amusing map pictures (just Google “strava funny routes” to see some examples). How much of the city’s data will reflect this playful spirit rather than actual data about real riding routes is a question also worth asking.
Another important issue – and this is a big one in the emerging smart cities context – relates to data ownership. Because the data is collected by Strava and then sold to the cities for use in their planning activities, it is not the cities’ own data. The CBC report makes it clear that the contract between Strava and its urban clients leaves ownership of the data in Strava’s hands. As a result, this data on cycling patterns in Ottawa cannot be made available as open data, nor can it be otherwise published or shared. It will also not be possible to obtain the data through an access to information request. This will surely reduce the transparency of planning decisions made in relation to cycling.
Smart cities and big data analytics are very hot right now, and we can expect to see all manner of public-private collaborations in the gathering and analysis of data about urban life. Much of this data may come from citizen-sensors as is the case with the Strava data. As citizens opt or are co-opted into providing the data that fuels analytics, there are many important legal, ethical and public policy questions which need to be asked.