Hyde Park visitors “covertly tracked” via mobile phone data

Hyde Park

 The Guardian reports that:

Visitors to Hyde Park, one of London’s most famous tourist spots, were covertly tracked via their mobile phone signals in a trial undertaken by the Royal Parks to analyse footfall amid drastic funding cuts. Officials were able to retrospectively locate park-goers for 12 months using anonymised mobile phone data provided by the network operator EE via a third party.

Oddly, the article doesn’t take quite the negative approach suggested by the headline (I inserted the quote marks around “covertly tracked” – they’re not there in the original headline), and the stuff about privacy appears to be inserted to make this less about an interesting way of understanding behaviour and more about an invasion of privacy.

But as the story says, the data was anonymised. It’s not exactly snooping – this type of data has been used in different forms for decades by advertisers, planners, supermarket merchandisers…

If the aim is to ensure that the world’s most frequently visited public park attracts people from all backgrounds, it sounds like an interesting use of anonymised data we could apply in many other scenarios, and a useful counter to the far less anonymous collection of data that goes on not just by government but by some of our most popular companies. Google and Facebook, I’m looking at you.

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