The Elizabeth Line will destroy this secret algorithm that runs London

By Oliver Smith 15 January 2018
The new Elizabeth Line trains come into service December 2018.

Luckily, Transport for London has a cunning plan to replace it.

Unknown to the nearly 9m people commuting around London each day, every move they make has already been predicted.

In an ordinary looking Transport for London office – the location of which TfL have asked not be revealed due to the sensitive nature of work taking place there – a powerful computer system models millions of trips around the capital, before they actually happen.

Built on over four decades of data, it’s a world-class computer model that helps TfL’s chief data officer Lauren Sager Weinstein and her team of data scientists accurately predict the fallout from train delays, line maintenance, public events and other disruptions.

This Minority Report-like system plays through every daily ‘rush hour’, before it even happens.

And this December, it’s being destroyed.

Remodelling London

“We have these great big strategic models that we’ve been running for years, since long before the world of big data,” Sager Weinstein told The Memo.

“But when you bring in the Elizabeth Line our models won’t be fit for purpose.”

The Elizabeth Line (previously known as Crossrail) is London’s biggest transport infrastructure project since the Jubilee Line opened in 1979.

When first services begin in December the capacity of London’s transport network will increase by 10% overnight, new travellers from faraway towns like Shenfield and Maidenhead will be given quick access to the capital for the first time.

It’s a huge win for London, but a vast challenge for Sager Weinstein’s team.

“Some of the assumptions for the Elizabeth line were constructed as far back as 2003 (when the modern Crossrail project took shape),” she says.

Much of the data upon which TfL’s current computer model of London is founded on was collected by hundreds of thousands of paper surveys, collected as far back as the 1960s and 70s.

“We’ve made some modelling assumptions, but all those route patterns are all going to change.”

In fact, TfL expects nearly every journey in the capital will be affected, improved or changed in some way.

Luckily Sager Weinstein has a cunning plan to remodel 40 years of data once the Elizabeth Line opens, all in a matter of weeks.

Dozens of London stations are being redesigned for the Elizabeth Line.

A strong signal

For a month in 2017 Transport for London tracked the movements of 5.6m smartphones around London Underground using the free wifi network – a project The Memo first uncovered back in 2016.

The smartphones completed 56m ‘journeys’ and gave Sager Weinstein’s team unprecedented insights into how commuters were actually travelling around London, the impact of delays, which trains were overcrowded, and much more.

Now her team is working on a new version of this system, one which could replace 40 years of data in mere weeks, remodelling modern London and how people travel around it.

In fact, Sager Weinstein says the sea change in London transport caused by the Elizabeth Line is “one of the reasons we started looking at new ways of collecting data and doing data analysis”.

In the future the new system could also collect and analyse data in real time, giving station managers minute-by-minute updates on the traffic flows around their station (for which they currently rely on CCTV for).

And that secret algorithm that TfL uses to model London’s transport network and predict the future, could get even smarter.

Read more: Virtual reality & big data – How TfL is exploring the future of your commute