Big Data Promises a Voice for San Antonio Cyclists – But at What Cost?

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A cyclist rides in the bike lane on Saint Mary's Street.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

A cyclist rides in the bike lane on Saint Mary's Street.

As mobile devices gather more information about how we experience cities, platforms like Strava, a Facebook-meets-Fitbit smartphone application for cyclists, can help officials take a new approach to deciding where bike infrastructure should go by sharing users’ data.

But what price does the public pay for the crowdsourced data it helped create?

This summer, the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDoT) agreed to purchase two years of anonymized cycling and pedestrian data from Strava. The first year will cost more than $100,000. People typically use the app to track workouts, plan cycling routes, and share personal statistics with other cyclists in their community. Strava is free, though users can upgrade to a paid version to unlock more features.

Since 2014, Strava has collected data from users across the globe, including about 84,545 users in Texas and 18,916 in Bexar County, according to estimates provided by Strava Metro, the division of Strava that gathers and analyzes the company’s data. Data collected through the app is sold on a quarterly basis to state and local governments to assist in the planning of cycling and pedestrian infrastructure, such as bike lanes and crosswalks.

To view an interactive map of Strava’s data, including San Antonio’s, click here.

Strava has made similar partnerships with 125 cities and states around the globe including Florida, Oregon, and London.

In 2014, Wired Magazine reported that Strava charged transportation planners in Oregon $20,000 a year for data on its users. In July 2017, Strava invoiced TxDoT $219,576 for two years of access to historic and current pedestrian and cycling data, according to a purchase order the Rivard Report obtained through an open records request. The second round of data is promised to TxDoT by October 11th, 2018.

TxDoT stated it has made no other comparable data purchases for bike or pedestrian related programs since 2012.

Courtesy / Strava Metro / Strava Metro

A screen shot shows Strava Metro’s crowdsourced platform and the cycling data it captures from users online.

TxDOT plans to enter into a two-year agreement with Strava, using funds from vehicle registration fees and fuel taxes, as well as federal reimbursements and other state and local funds to purchase the data. In other words, Texas drivers will subsidize part of the cost of purchasing data to improve road conditions for cyclists.

According to an internal memo shared with the Rivard Report, TxDoT expects to use the crowdsourced data to make recommendations to local area governments about where to target infrastructure investments and adjustments, including changes to street sweep times, signal timing, and installing new cycling lanes.

But TxDOT has no power over street improvements made in San Antonio.

“We have no jurisdiction of city streets in San Antonio at all,” explained Josh Donat, public information officer for TxDot. “But we do partner with the City through the MPO [Metropolitan Planning Organization].”

Strava refers to this process a “trickle down” method of data sharing, according to Brian Riordan, GIS analyst and customer relations lead at Strava Metro. This means that data will be accessible to local organizations like the Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (AAMPO) through entering a sub-licensing agreement with Strava after the data is purchased by a state entity.

The sub-licensing agreement places restrictions on how the data can be shared and must be renewed annually. AAMPO has already signed the agreement.

“We don’t know quite yet what we’re going to do with [the data] because it’s so new. But we will use it to decide which projects get funding,” explained Alexandria Carroll, a transportation planner for AAMPO.

The planning organization will continue to rely on bike counters and public feedback to aid in the decision-making process regarding which infrastructure projects in San Antonio would receive the support of nearly $15 million in federal dollars earmarked for local transportation projects.

“More projects come in than we have money for,” Carroll said. “… If you get two projects that have bicycle lanes as part of the roadway, Strava data will help us decide which project will be used more.”

Some planning professionals worry that Strava’s data may skew decision-making, as it may not accurately represent San Antonio’s cycling community, and when or where its members ride.

“There is some inherent bias as to who is using [Strava], so we have to take that into consideration,” Carroll said.

Jeff Moore leads weekly social rides through downtown as part of the official group, SATX Social Ride. “They’re definitely bike enthusiasts,” Moore said of Strava users in San Antonio. Moore himself has been using the Strava app since 2014.

“Most [Strava users] aren’t commuting, they’re riding for health reasons and social reasons,” Moore said. “These are people who ride more than their daily commute; people who might be training for charity rides or the MS-150, [an annual cycling race benefiting multiple sclerosis research].”

A study by the Center for Disease Control found that data generated from Strava’s users is somewhat correlated to government data about how people use active transportation to get to work. The correlations ranged from poor (0.28 in Nashville) to high (0.58 in San Francisco), and improved for cities with higher population densities.

Strava’s data would not be used alone to determine how the City of San Antonio addresses cycling infrastructure, said Arthur Reinhardt, assistant director of the City’s Transportation and Capital Improvements.

“This data is not meant to be used as a singular source, but rather to supplement multiple data sources: crash data, infrastructure data, and our bicycle count program,” Reinhardt said. “[It] will assist us by identifying where people are riding now and what infrastructure improvements may … improve the ridership experience.”

Advocacy groups have raised further concerns about the privacy risks of fitness applications that track individuals’ runs, routes, and vitals in real time.

PenTestPartners, a third party limited liability corporation that conducts penetration testing for popular platforms like Strava, highlighted vulnerabilities in the application. Security gaps included the lack of enforcement for complex passwords, and that Google can index personal profiles making them publicly searchable online, regardless of privacy settings.

Still, Moore feels that Strava’s use of his data does not infringe on his privacy.

“There’s nothing I’m worried about in terms of them invading my privacy,” Moore said. “I’m voluntarily turning it on so it’s not invasive to me.”

Despite privacy risks and increased costs associated with the State’s purchase of Strava’s crowdsourced data, some residents and cyclists look forward to seeing how it might influence bike infrastructure.

“I can’t wait until they put up [data for] 2016,” Moore said. “That’s when [SATX Social Ride] started really pushing it hard. I’ll be able to see where we’ve affected the data a little bit.”

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