Transport body to harvest smartphone data to understand citizens’ road journeys

Engineering heavyweight Atkins wins £360,000 deal

Credit: Rui Vieira/PA Wire/PA Images

Transport strategies for the north of England will be informed by “data harvested from mobile devices” to track citizens’ journeys on motorways and A-roads.

Transport for the North – a statutory body established in 2018 – has signed a £360,000 deal with major engineering firm Atkins covering the supply of information from last year, this year and next year. The transport agency is looking to better understand patterns in the journeys citizens make on the north’s major road network (MRN).

Atkins will be equipped with “GIS shapefiles using the Ordnance Survey Open Road data set” that will outline the roads to be covered by the data-gathering exercise. The ongoing establishment of the MRN represents an expansion of the existing Strategic Road Network, which includes the motorways and bigger A-roads that are currently managed by Highways England.

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The engineering company will then be expected to provide Transport for the North with yearly breakdowns for 2020, 2021, and 2022 covering the number of users on the MRN, how many of these are regular users, where journeys on the network began and ended, journey lengths and times, average speeds, and delays.

“Data harvested from mobile devices for the most up-to-date full year will be used to understand users of different paths on the MRN,” the transport agency said. “The supplier will prepare a process that receives a list of MRN paths via [an] API, undertakes the necessary processing and then outputs separate data for each path.”

The deal is worth £360,000 and runs from 1 March 2021 to 29 March 2024.

Transport for the North, which claims to be the “England’s first sub-national transport body”, brings together local authorities and businesses with Highways England, Network Rail and HS2 Ltd, and works with the Department for Transport. It is a statutory guidance body whose remit is to ensure that “funding and strategy decisions about transport in the north are informed by local knowledge and requirements”.

Gathering location data from citizens’ smartphones has become an increasingly common tool in helping to inform policy and programmes, or provide insight into societal trends.

In 2017, the ONS examined data provided by Vodafone on the movements of people across three London boroughs. This was then compared with the information on citizens’ journeys to work that was gathered via the last national census in 2011, to see if the smartphone data could provide a useful source of additional information.

The Cabinet Office, meanwhile, last year awarded a contract to Ericsson subsidiary Emodo through which the department sought to gather smartphone location data to provide an insight into the impact of national lockdowns on citizens’ movements.


Sam Trendall

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