According to Technology.org, the US Department of Transportation is launching a project aiming to “modernize its data analysis and integrate its traditional datasets” with “big data” sources such as the Waze mobile navigation app “to gain insights into transportation safety.” In using traffic crash data with data from the crowd-sourced app Waze, DOT will attempt to provide more reliable and timely reports of traffic crashes and publicize a better-estimated crash risk based on the hazards reported in the app. The stated goal of this effort is, of course, to better inform the public and decrease the number of highway fatalities using data that can be “collected and analyzed much more quickly.”
US DOT Secretary Elaine Chao said that advancements made by private sector innovations such as Waze “have the potential to transform the Department’s approach to safety research and provide insights that can help improve highway safety.” This isn’t the first time the government has looked to partner with the private sector with the goal of using private sector data to improve highway traffic and safety.
In 2016, Nextcity.org reported on a program launched by DOT called the “Smart Cities Challenge” in Austin, Columbus, Denver, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Portland, and San Francisco that tasked the cities to team up with a Google project called Sidewalk Labs to collect traffic data that would help city leaders develop a data platform called Flow.
That is to say, the data collected from your smartphones through apps such as Google Maps and Waze, city traffic sensors, and other sources about your whereabouts is being handed to the government so they can “analyze traffic patterns.” What they will do with this “analysis” they haven’t exactly figured out yet. Sidewalk CEO Dan Doctoroff said that Flow’s data can “allow cities to map access against demand, create dashboards for transportation, parking.”
While it may sound cool and exciting that the government is reaching out to the private sector to improve our experience on government roads, the fact that our data is so nonchalantly handed to the government by these companies is a bit concerning. All we have to do is look to the government’s illegal warrantless spying program PRISM to see how calls for collecting data for “public safety” can be exploited.