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Cellphone Data Fuels Downtown Advocacy and City Planning

City planning agencies and business improvement districts are increasingly relying on cellphone tracking data from groups like to understand how cities are changing.

In Brief:
  • Downtown business improvement districts across the U.S. are using cellphone tracking data to understand who’s visiting their cities and for how long.

  • New data tools help flesh out narratives about cities’ post-pandemic recoveries.

  • The New York City Department of City Planning is undertaking a study on hybrid work patterns that’s based on cellphone data and funded by the Federal Highway Administration.

  • It’s Paul Levy’s job to make Center City Philadelphia look good.

    Levy is president and CEO of the Center City District (CCD), a downtown business improvement district (BID) — organizations formed by private property owners and businesses within a legally constituted city district. The BID pays for street cleaning and improvement projects with an assessment on commercial property owners.

    Over the last three decades, CCD has put out dozens of reports on the economic and cultural health of downtown Philadelphia. For a long time, those reports were fueled by Longitudinal Employer-Household Dynamics data from the U.S. Census Bureau — information about who works downtown, what sort of jobs they have and where they commute from each morning — that Levy thought of as “the Holy Grail” of downtown data.

    About two years ago, somewhere near the depths of the pandemic-fueled downtown slump, CCD began using a different set of data based on cellphone locations. The data, provided by a location analytics startup called, gives CCD something close to a real-time picture of who’s in Center City. By tracking where someone’s journey starts and ends, and how long they stay downtown, the service can show how many residents, commuting workers and visitors are in Center City during any given period. It can be tailored to just about any geographic area. Lately, Levy says, the data show a steady increase of downtown visitors — a welcome counterweight to the prognostications of urban doom that attended the late stages of the pandemic.

    “I put this [data] up there as the second Holy Grail,” Levy says. “But with the caution that it’s not reality. It’s an approximation of reality.”

    Center City District isn’t the only civic group tracking downtown activity using cellphone location data. Similar BID organizations in Austin, Seattle, Pittsburgh, Salt Lake City and Washington, D.C., are all customers of Placer. The New York City Department of City Planning recently contracted with the company to study urban mobility as well. State and federal transportation planners have long been using data from similar services to understand traffic patterns. And researchers are increasingly incorporating mobility data into studies of everything from neighborhood vitality to public health. Services like Placer are carving out ever more sophisticated niches in the universe of big data, and beginning to change the way business groups and public agencies plan their investments.

    Tracking Digital Footprints

    The data that fuels and other services comes directly from apps carried by millions of smartphone users, which includes some 85 percent of Americans, according to the Pew Research Center. Smartphones and apps have GPS capabilities that track users’ whereabouts throughout the day. Many of those apps sell data to third parties, including advertisers and research groups. It was clear half a decade ago that this type of data was going to drastically alter the way businesses and governments understand mobility, says Adie Tomer, a senior fellow at Brookings Metro. Once smartphone usage became nearly ubiquitous, Tomer says, that location data “just has to be collected. That’s quite literally how the phone companies get service to you.”

    Concerns about privacy and monetization of users’ data notwithstanding, people started to become much more comfortable with their data being tracked as more companies began doing it and more and more useful services began employing it, Tomer says.

    “We all want to know if the restaurant is busy,” he says. “You can’t have that without the data.”

    Understanding How Cities Are Changing

    Ethan Chernofsky, Placer’s senior vice president of marketing, says the data the company uses is already anonymized by the time it gets it. Placer got its start in 2018 in the retail real estate industry, helping retailers and brokers understand which locations were high-traffic areas for their target demographics. It began to pick up more customers among business improvement districts and other economic development groups a few years ago, mid-pandemic, he says. As shutdowns and remote work changed the way people used urban space, more people had more questions about exactly what those changes looked like: Who is visiting what parts of town, when and for how long?

    BID groups like Center City District say the value of Placer is that it can target specific geographies. Center City’s downtown looks a lot different from downtown Austin and downtown Baltimore, Levy says, but traditional tools have used crude concentric circles, emanating out from a more less arbitrary center point, to approximate “downtown.” The group uses Placer to track overall visitation to Center City, along with visits to a subsection of the traditional office district, and specifically to Dilworth Park, a public space adjacent to City Hall that’s managed by CCD. In a recent report, CCD said that Placer data showed that in June of this year “there were 384,408 people downtown, 87 percent of the volume present in June 2019.” Based on the length of time that devices linger in the area, Placer also breaks down visitations into Center City residents, workers who commute from outside the area and visitors who come on occasion.

    Chernofsky says that cities and business groups are “really struggling to make decisions that aren’t just based on a hunch, and even when they have that hunch, how do they express that?”

    New York’s Department of City Planning is working with the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council (NYMTC) and Placer to understand how new hybrid models of remote and in-person work have changed mobility in the city. Funded by a $500,000 grant from the Federal Highway Administration, the groups will “establish a methodology for a comprehensive analysis of the impact of remote work and other long-term shifts in transportation behavior initiated by the pandemic to guide future decisions about the region’s transportation network and economic growth strategy,” according to NYMTC’s Unified Planning Work Program. In a published “intent to award,” the Department of City Planning said it had determined that Placer is “the only vendor that generates and provides location data to develop statistically significant insights into any physical place. …” Casey Berkovitz, a spokesperson for the planning department, says the pandemic undercut the assumption that every office worker in the region would be commuting to their job at 8 a.m. five days a week. Placer data can help flesh out the picture of how commuting happens now, while also aiding in proposals for office-to-residential conversions and environmental reviews for public projects like transit stations.

    “All of that stuff is informed by mobility patterns,” Berkovitz says.

    An Imperfect Tool

    Business groups using Placer say it’s important to pair it with other sources of data and not lean too much on any one product. The Center City District, for example, still has traditional pedestrian sensors posted throughout downtown Philadelphia. Megan Schott, a planning associate at DowntownDC, says the group uses Placer to monitor monthly visits to the downtown district as it struggles to recover from the pandemic. It also uses it to understand who visits Franklin Park, a National Park Service property that is maintained and operated by the BID. Demographic data help DowntownDC make sure its programming is attracting diverse visitors; Placer provides that, Schott says, but the group also backs it up with surveys and other in-person tools.

    “Unless they can tell me exactly how they extrapolate someone’s race and age, then it’s not going to be data I rely on,” she says.

    The data occasionally produces wonky results that don’t pass the sniff test, users say, like indicating that the number of downtown residents increased drastically in a short period of time. Results have to be verified with other sources of information. Another limitation is that smartphone usage isn’t totally universal, so the data largely leaves out kids, elderly people and many low-income people, says Tomer of the Brookings Institution.

    “It puts the onus on the consumer of the data, the customer, to understand or try to figure out where those limitations are,” he says.

    The Downtown Alliance in Salt Lake City began using Placer about two years ago. For years prior to that, says Dee Brewer, the group’s executive director, it ran a telephone survey throughout the Intermountain West to try to understand why people visited downtown Salt Lake, what deterred them from coming and what communities had a greater affinity for the areas than others. It was useful but limited, Brewer says.

    “In my experience in marketing and research, what people say they do or believe and what they actually do — sometimes there’s a gap,” he says.

    Cellphone tracking data is more powerful. A recent report from the University of Toronto School of Cities, which relies on cellphone data from a group called Spectus, suggested that Salt Lake has the best downtown recovery of any city in the nation. The Downtown Alliance uses Placer to get much more granular information: How many people visit the City Creek Center shopping mall when big events are held downtown, how closing streets to cars promotes foot traffic near local businesses, and so on. It also uses the data to help merchants understand what to expect during big visitation days.

    While it isn’t perfect, Brewer says, “We’re not going back to a telephone survey.”

    Note: This article was updated to clarify ownership of Franklin Park in Washington, D.C.
    Jared Brey is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @jaredbrey.
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