The city of Portland is tracking resident movements

The city of Portland is about to start tracking its residents — closely. The city government has worked out a deal with Sidewalk Labs (which is owned by Google’s parent company, Alphabet) to run a pilot program of their Replica software. The software will provide Portland with a huge dataset on how their population moves around the city.

Rather than using cameras or sensors, however, Replica uses city residents’ own cellphones to track how people are moving around. They data they collect about Portland residents will come from mobile app publishers, mobile location data aggregators, and telcos. Here’s how Sidewalk Labs describes what they do and how they’ll collect data:

De-identified mobile location data: We use de-identified mobile phone location data to generate travel behavior models —  basically, a set of rules that represent how a person makes choices on where, when, why, and how to travel.

Synthetic population generation: Separately, we use aggregate demographic information to create what planners call a ‘synthetic population’. This is a virtual population that is statistically representative of the real population.

Computer simulation: We then give each person in the virtual population a travel behavior model and use computer simulation to generate a week of activities–helping us confidently replicate trip patterns across a city or metro area.”

The city hopes that the technology will give them a bird's eye view of issues like whether or not ride-sharing apps affect traffic and where people are bicycling.

“We’ll be looking to Replica to explore a number of questions about major issues in our region like equity, safety, and congestion,” said Eliot Rose, technology strategist at Portland’s Metro, told GeekWire.

Proponents of this project say that residents don’t have to worry about privacy problems, because the data has been de-identified, while the city will massively benefit from such a detailed data set. Opponents, however, point out that since this is a pilot program, there’s a whole lot that residents — and city officials — just can’t know yet.

“If a city is going to use a system, it has a responsibility to have full transparency about where all of the data is coming from, how it is being de-identified and to what level, and if that data is reused again or stored by Replica or Sidewalk or passed to its parent company,” Pam Dixon, executive director of Oregon-based nonprofit World Privacy Forum, told GeekWire. “There’s too much that we don’t know.”

While Replica seems well-intentioned — they’re trying to improve public transit and general quality of life for Portland residents, after all — it’s that final point that’s more important. There’s a long history of well-intentioned tech being misused or even appropriated by bad actors and ultimately hurting the people it was meant to help. Portland residents should be skeptical — and the city government should be cautious — as the city moves forward with this project.

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