Anonymous Phone Tracking Helps Identify Traffic Patterns

City officials are using commuters' cellular data to aid in transportation system planning.

by Sarina Rhinehart Ames Tribune, Iowa / August 31, 2015

(TNS) -- The city of Ames is in the middle of crafting a long-range transportation plan that will establish a vision for roadways, transit, bicycles and pedestrians in Ames and surrounding communities through 2040.

And they’re using your cell to help study traffic patterns in and out of Story County.

As part of the process in creating goals and plans for the future, the city conducted an in-depth analysis of the existing transportation in the area, which included a look at the number of people who commute to or from Story County each day.

“We wanted to make sure we understood how commuting was affecting the transportation system,” said transportation planner Jason Carbee, a consultant working with the city of Ames on the development of its transportation plan.

To gather this information, Carbee said they used data from AirSage, a company that anonymously collects and analyzes wireless data across the nation.

“We have a contract with two major cell phone carriers,” said Bill King with AirSage. This anonymous data provided by the phone carriers allows AirSage to pin down an approximate location of any cell phone at any time from cell towers.

In using this data to understand commuting in Story County, AirSage analyzed where phones spend most of their nights (their home location) and where they spend most of their week days (work, school, etc.)

“It knows where the phone sleeps and where its at 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.,” Carbee said.

King said this tracking technology has been available for the past decade and has been used across the county to understand transportation patterns, including being used in a previous Dubuque transportation study.

“People use our data to make the world a better place,” King said.

The data from the Story County commuting assessment showed that 67,271 people commute within Story County and thousands of others travel to or from Story County from many surrounding counties, including most frequently Polk, Boone and Marshall counties. The data also showed there were more people commuting into Story County for work or school then those who live in Story County who commute elsewhere.

More broadly, Carbee said the analysis of Story County transportation highlighted the possible need for a future regional transit system, which could be a fixed bus between Ames and Ankeny or Ames and Des Moines.

“I don’t think we are too surprised,” said Ames Transportation Planner Tony Filippini of the data they collected on commuting. “There is a good number of people that commute into Ames.”

Ames has held public meetings and received input on the transportation plan, and a draft of the plan was presented at Tuesday’s Ames Area Metropolitan Planning Organization. Several changes to the plan will be posted next week for the public to view at amesmobility2040.com. Filippini said the city will be accepted public comments until Sept. 11, and the likely final draft will be presented Sept. 15 to potentially be approved at Ames Area MPO’s Sept. 22 meeting.

Commuters coming from Story County home:

Work County; work commuters

  • Story; 67,271
  • Polk; 3,758
  • Boone; 1,635
  • Marshall; 803
  • Hamilton; 641
  • Dallas; 307
  • Webster; 190
  • Jasper; 167
  • Black Hawk; 161
  • Hardin; 140
  • Commuters going to Story County work:
  • Home County; Work Commuters
  • Story; 67,271
  • Polk; 4,322
  • Boone; 2,277
  • Marshall; 1,389
  • Hamilton; 931
  • Hardin; 658
  • Jasper; 421
  • Dallas; 340
  • Tama; 337
  • Greene; 260

©2015 the Ames Tribune, Iowa Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.