Could free wifi use data be useful to Belfast?

If you walk through a wifi area and have wifi enabled on your phone, the system can track a certain amount about your presence and movement. They could have that data for Belfast’s city council run wifi networks, which are on around 70 buildings – so what can be done with it? If they had enough compelling use cases they could partner with other organisations to grow the data set.

That data includes things like the device MAC address, the SSID of the network you’ve connected to, and so on.

When you login, you give consent for that data to be collected and used. You don’t if you haven’t connected. Most mobile phones announce their presence to find wifi hotspots.

What value would a wifi nerd see in this?


Tracking people in aggregate, leaning about their movements, and traffic pattern changing over time. It could identify the need for public transport, crossing or even taxi provision. It can all be anonymised – and Transport for London already does this to understand London’s transport needs.

You could even use real-time analytics to spot incidents happening through traffic pattern disruptions. Accumulation of this data over time makes it more useful.

The consent conundrum

“If you get consent, keep it forever,” said one attendee. Belfast would want at least a few years, for seasonality analysis, for example.

People are quite happy to give up this information in exchange for a benefit. There’s the tangible benefit of wifi access, but the other benefit is the positive change that it can create in the city. The stories of that need to be told.

That said, exceptional movement can be tracked down to the individual, of there are repeating patterns – so you want to apply some form of filter to that. This was an issue with London’s bike scheme. Maybe hash the MAC address with a date/time salt to make it extremely difficult to reverse that down to a particular information. But – you lose potentially useful patterns through doing that. Under GDPR, you’ll need to hold on to the unique identifier, but you can still anonymise the data and release it as usefully as possible.

Remember, the phone networks already know where you are, and are commercialising that data.

Real-time data

Heat maps for events could be useful – where did they go, and what was the impact? Did they go on to other attractions? It would give you a bigger sense of the impact of an event on the city. But, of course, that also makes it more of a target… But then, you don’t need that wifi data to know that an event is popular. That doesn’t mean the security panels won’t come back to you on it, though.

In this context, live data is more dangerous than delayed publication – which is one option to look at. Belfast doesn’t need to do this alone – lots of places are looking at this.

Some businesses are already using this data – supermarkets are using it to generate footfall data for store planning.

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