- Alphabet-backed Sidewalk Labs has launched a location tracking software pilot with the city of Portland, OR, according to a report in GeekWire that the company confirmed to Smart Cities Dive. Sidewalk Lab’s Replica software tracks people’s movements based on location data from smartphones and smartphone apps, and delivers anonymized data to transportation agencies to gain insight into traffic patterns.
- Portland City Council approved the $457,000 pilot in December, to be administered by the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT), Portland Metro and TriMet, the regional public transit network. After the one-year trial, the agencies could purchase a one-year subscription to the service for 12 cents per resident, according to Oregon Public Broadcasting.
- Replica pilots have also been launched in a half-dozen other cities, including Chicago and Kansas City, MO.
Replica is designed to give cities and transportation agencies a robust data set about where people are going throughout the day, meant to replace out-of-date surveys or expensive modeling programs that most agencies rely on. The Portland pilot will include four surrounding counties to give a better sense of movements in the area and encompass citizens that may not be accounted for in existing Portland data. Eliot Rose, a technology strategist at Portland Metro, told GeekWire the pilot would "explore a number of questions about major issues in our region like equity, safety and congestion."
But the software comes with significant concerns about how Sidewalk Labs is collecting the location data, and how it will be properly anonymized to protect residents' identities. According to Sidewalk Labs, all location data is already de-identified before it is plugged into Replica. Aggregate demographic information from the U.S. Census and other sources is overlaid to create a “virtual population that is statistically representative of the real population.” That, the company says, ensures that no individual trips can be linked back to any one person.
According to GeekWire, PBOT says that its contract prevents law enforcement or any other government body not affiliated with the pilot from accessing Replica information. The Portland City Council was supposed to consider a data privacy measure on Wednesday, but delayed the vote. The project relies purely on smartphone data, and will not use any cameras or other monitors.
The conflict between gathering valuable data and protecting citizens’ privacy has been playing out across city and state governments. Sidewalk Labs is no stranger to the debate, as the company’s Quayside smart city development in Toronto has been beset by concerns over how the company would treat data collected by its sensors. Sidewalk Labs has said it will use a third party to store data and handle any requests for information at Quayside, but public questions remain.