WiFi-tracking to improve NS' empty seat finding app

Crowded train (Picture: Twitter/@michellekroekie)Crowded train (Picture: Twitter/@michellekroekie)

NS wants to use WiFi tracking to improve and expand its app that finds empty seats on a train. The current methods used are too imprecise. The rail company is waiting for the Dutch Data Protection Authority to green light this plan, Udo Oelen, NS' privacy director, said to Trouw.

In many cases, the current NS seat finder does not yet work. "In the most modern train there would be a sensor in every seat, so that you can see for each seat whether there is room. But the current NS trains do not have those sensors", Oelen explained. The company therefore uses the weight of wagons to estimate whether there are empty seats. "For this we use weight sensors in the tracks, originally intended for freight trains. However, we do not have that on all routes."

NS is therefore looking for a better way in which to detect empty seats, and thinks that WiFi tracking is the solution. It is possible to track a mobile phone's WiFi signals through the so-called mac address, which every mobile device has. But as a cellphone is usually only used by its owner, it involves personal data and therefore has to comply with the privacy laws.

"The decision has yet to be made. We first have to check with the Dutch Data Protection Authority." Oelen said. "We want to guarantee that the mac address of the phone is counted by the sensor, but that this mac address is not actually registered. NS does not want to follow anyone, but only know how busy it will ultimately be in a train."

"It is important for us to make this information accessible so that people can better divide themselves on the train and the chance of getting a seat increases", Oelen said. "For safety it is also better if masses of people spread out on the train."