Strava, the mobile fitness app used by cyclists and runners to track their performance with GPS, is selling the personal data of its users to governments to help urban planners improve bike routes.
The Oregon Department of Transportation has already signed up for the Strava Metro service, paying $20,000 for the data. Strava's mission is to leverage the millions of GPS-tracked activities uploaded by its members every week to help make cycling in cities better.
The end goal could be a major win for cyclists. It also raises questions about the rights users have over their personal data.
American governmental institutions are still catching up with the idea of using big data, and the legal framework for accessing data collected by private companies is murky.
ODOT and Strava aren't intruding on citizens' privacy to the extent of the NSA. Strava says the data set of over 300 billion GPS points it has collected worldwide are anonymized and aggregated to protect privacy. Still, the new service raises questions about what data will be shared, how it will be transferred, and what the government intends to do with it.
The ODOT Deal
ODOT officials told bike advocacy blog BikePortland, which broke the story, that the partnership is experimental. ODOT has used Strava data in the past when the government agency's own equipment failed to accurately assess trends in cycling traffic. But these situations involved specific data and circumstances. The new deal is much broader.
ODOT has purchased a tool without knowing exactly what they can do with it. The immediate plan is to analyze the data for opportunities to improve bike routes for Oregon cyclists. Efforts will focus on showing the highest areas of traffic and those with the most recurring problems.
Studies in Portland have validated this approach, but the accuracy involved in identifying such trends yields clues concerning other potential uses. Strava pulls in position and speed data so accurately that it can often be used to identify what lane a cyclist is using on a particular road. It also tracks the time of your ride using the GPS satellite constellation, which runs according to atomic clocks at various GPS satellite ground stations throughout the world.
Strava's Other Data
With such accuracy, could the government use Strava data to figure out if a cyclist ran a stop sign or a stoplight? Could it be used in the event of an accident involving a vehicle to map a cyclist's behavior prior to a collision?