big data going underground
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Some of us are weary of big data.  However it may soon be helping us get around the tube more quickly.

Transport for London have just published a report on a pilot scheme which took place between November and December 2016.

By collecting Wi-Fi data from customer’s mobile devices TfL were able to track their journey.  The aim of the study being to improve a customer’s experience as they travel around the capital.

passengers on tube
Image credit: Tupungato /

1,070 Wi-Fi access points at over 50 underground stations tracked customer’s movements.  The study collected 509million pieces of data from 5.6million devices with over 40million journeys mapped.

Depersonalised data

TfL were quick to emphasise all data collected was depersonalised.  Customers browsing data was not collected.  Nor were Individuals identified.

Customers were also able to opt out of the study.  An approach applauded by experts.

Dr Hannah Fry from the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis at University College London, said: “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.”

customers using phones on tube

Sue Daley, Head of Programme for Cloud, Data, Analytics and AI, techUK, agreed.  She said: “The transparency and openness shown by TfL is to be applauded.

“The steps taken to make customers aware of the data collection and its purpose should be seen as a blueprint for others.

“If UK organisations are to realise the full potential of real-time data-driven decisions, it is vital that we bring the public on this journey by building a culture of data trust and confidence.”

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Why did TfL carry out the pilot scheme?

More people are using the tube than ever before.  More trains are running but the network can become clogged.

By collecting customers data TfL were able to analyse their journey.  The data they collected allowed them to understand how customers use the network.  TfL were also able to use the data to see where overcrowding occurs and how pinch points develop.

Why use Wi-Fi?

The data collected by Wi-Fi is much more informative than tradition research methods.  Paper surveys and ticket buying patterns do not reveal specific detail.  From the electronic data researchers were able to extract more comprehensive information.

They could see were crowding occurs on platforms or other areas.  They could also see how customers interacted with the network.

young women checking smartphone on tube

An example was how customers travelled between King’s Cross St Pancras and Waterloo.

The data showed customers took 18 different routes to travel between the two stations.  40% of whom did not take one of the two most popular routes.

Benefits to the customer

The data collected by TfL could have several benefits to the tube user as well as the company itself.

These include:

  • Staff being able to advise customers on the best way to avoid disruptions
  • Being able to help customers plan their journeys and the most efficient route
  • TfL will be able to provide information in real time
  • Problem areas on the network can be identified for more investment
  • Being able to track the flow of passengers will allow TfL to maximise marketing opportunities
tube map
Image credit: Claudio Divizia /

What they are saying

Dr Hannah Fry from the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis at University College London, said: “By doing this study, TfL have demonstrated the very real way that big data can benefit us all.

“Using Wi-Fi to understand how people are moving through underground stations gives us the chance to choose what we want from our journeys.

“Prefer a less busy train and don’t mind waiting an extra five minutes? Have a massive bag you need to carry through the station and looking for the emptiest route between platforms? By knowing where people are, TfL can offer those alternatives and, in turn, change our experience of using the Tube.

“The Wi-Fi data offers a completely new way to view what’s happening underground. It exposes the pinch-points in the network and can help TfL to understand how and why overcrowding happens – an essential step to making the Tube as safe and efficient as possible.”

underground station
Image credit: Ivica Drusany /

What happens next?

Naturally enough TfL want to extend the pilot study.  They want to collect customer’s data on a permanent basis.  Discussions are ongoing with the Information Commissioner’s Office and other interest groups.

If approved data will be collected at every Wi-Fi enabled station on the network.  Currently 97% of tube stations have free Wi-Fi.


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Token old guy in the office and lifelong Hull City fan with all the psychological issues that brings. To relax I enjoy walking my two Labradors, as well as running and cycling.


  1. Why does this article not mention TFL’s plans to push advertising and sell WiFi data to third parties, that’s the only way to leverage there investment


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