Wednesday, November 18, 2015

To Strava or not to Strava?

The City of Ottawa just announced that it's partnering with to collect cycling data over the next two years. (In case you're one of the non-cyclists reading this, Strava is a training app for cyclists and runners that tracks your activity using a GPS device or the GPS on your smartphone and posts it to an online community.)

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a "cycling gold medal" city in pursuit of better cycling infrastructure must be in want of data. You need to know where people are riding, what routes are heavily used, where people have to take awkward or roundabout paths to avoid hazards, what their destinations are. You need to know what people are actually doing on their bikes if you're going to find ways to make it easier for them to do it.

There are a bunch of ways you can try to collect this data. They used to put students on street corners to count traffic. Now there are the ride counters that have been popping up all over town since the first ones went up in 2009. The City had a goal of 30 counters on major routes by the end of this year: not sure how close they are to that goal. There are also occasional bike audits being done, like the Cycle In project I was involved in this fall, in which people ride their usual commute and note where problems are. 

But all of these are complicated or expensive or otherwise a hassle, compared to having Strava do it for you. This information will just be generated by local cyclists as a matter of their daily lives, harnessing the power of every GPS device that's hooked up to it. It will be uploaded and aggregated and anonymized, and it's automatically free to use by the terms of the end user licensing agreement no one reads. 

Sounds great, right? Yeah, it kind of is. It's going to give the City much better data than they had, just based on the fact that bike counters only track people passing a particular point, and this tracks larger behaviour and patterns. But there are a couple of things that bug me.

One: Strava's whole culture is athletic. It's a training app for people who (primarily) cycle as a sport. Go to the splash page: you're invited to "join a worldwide community of athletes and train like never before." Leaderboards and challenges encourage you to set goals and to go further and faster and train harder. Members' profiles are "athlete profiles." You can get a "vanity URL" with the path:[yournamehere], as though you were part of some stable sponsored by Strava. Rides are tracked on distance, speed, and climb. Automated emails from Strava are ego-patting, motivational silliness.

"Whoa, you're kind of a big deal! X is now following you on Strava. Click to follow X back. Let's show him/her what you can do."

Generally, then, its target demographic is a specific subset of cyclist: those who go fast and far, who are generally confident, fit, and very accustomed to riding. They won't be avoiding main drags by ducking along winding side streets. They probably also don't haul trailers, or have shopping panniers on back racks. They're probably not riding cargo bikes to the corner store through downtown streets, they're not Strava-ing their trip to pick the kids up from school, and their activity feeds aren't crammed with 15 km/h rides to the library, with frequent stops for intersections. 

This skewed representation isn't lost on Ottawa bike folks (well, the ones I keep in touch with, who are quite the most entertaining), and they are, perhaps predictably, queering the whole process. Soon after the City's announcement, quite a few cyclists (yes, including me) signed up, specifically in order to track the kind of riding we do and make sure it shows up against the sea of Spandex. And we started encouraging others to do the same, shouting "We are here! We are here!" like the Whos in Whoville. There's an #ottbike Strava club now (yes, I joined) to remind people to log their short, slow, urban trips, to generate the kind of data we want generated. But that takes me to the second thing that bugs me.

Two: Strava's making money off this, and off us. They're not just sharing this data out of the goodness of their bikey hearts. I don't know how much Ottawa's paying them, but in 2014, the Oregon Department of Transportation paid them $20,000 for a year's worth of Portland's cycling data (the first agreement of this kind between Strava and a state transportation agency). In fact, Strava wins two ways here: they get money from the City, and they get a whole bunch of new people signing on to the service (yes, including me) and using it actively because they want their data to be counted. This boosts their numbers and activity, which in turn encourages advertisers, which is their main source of revenue.

But then, the amounts we're talking about aren't really massive amounts of money for a city or for an internet data corporation. And users don't pay for the app, so it's no shock at all that big data companies are making money off the information we give up to them. That's their business model, after all. That's how it works, from Google to Facebook to Pinterest to Strava. Welcome to the cyberpunk age: information actually is power and currency in the virtual world we inhabit.

So, am I just being an old man yelling at a cloud when I'm a little uncomfortable that we're being forced, if we want our cycling patterns to count, to sign on to a specific data collection site and hand our data over to them? That you have to change your habits and patterns to fit Big Data? That this data won't include people who don't have smartphones or Garmins, who can't afford the data plans to upload this stuff, who aren't online and connected to the cycling community and won't have gotten the memo? 

Yeah, maybe. I'm already on Facebook; I can't really complain about the Big Data end of it. And at least, in Portland, they submitted the data with the caveat that Strava users were not representative of cyclists at large, and I can hope they take those factors into account here too. And, it's a way to provide the City with information it does need to make changes to infrastructure. So here I am, on Strava, logging my ride to the gym, or to my office, or to my evening meeting.

I can hope that if information actually is power and currency, I'll get some of my investment back in infrastructure improvements and benefits to me as a cyclist: and that's the best way one of these data-mining relationships can work out. 

Besides, the cyclists who've signed on for Strava in spite of its sportsiness, and because they want people to know that not everyone on a bike is training for a century, are having some fun with it. They're giving the rides they log sarcastic names. They're making a point of the ordinariness of their ride to get cat food or toilet paper or bagels. They're speculating on whether, at some point, an engineer at Strava will stop and wonder why there's suddenly been this spike in slow, short, meandering, un-athletic trips in the Ottawa area.

It's the curse of the Web 2.0 cohort that we're constantly using applications that weren't exactly designed for what we want to do with them. We make DropBox work as a wiki; we sneak private conversations onto Google Calendar Invites to circumvent office blockouts on email; we make WordPress try to be a website when it was (really, let's face it) meant to be a blogging platform. And we just might turn Strava into a tracker for workaday commuting, quaxing, going to shows, and meeting friends for coffee. 

We are here! We are here! We are here! YOP!!!


  1. The way I see it Strava's gotta make money somehow with the free app and service they provide. I'm an average commuter and mainly use it to track how much mileage I'm putting on my bikes. It was also a good motivator for me when I was getting started to see how much progress I'm making, and if the city is buying the data to improve cycling infrastructure then I'm definitely all for that.

  2. I pay $59/year for the strava premium service, I think that is how they make their money. Even if a small percentage of users pay it must add up to quite a bit since they have so many users

  3. Good discussion. I use Strava (premium) for my training and touring rides, but not for commuting around town or everyday cycling. I'm going to change that, and encourage others to as well. Strava's heat map is a great tool when visiting an area I'm not familiar with and looking for country routes to ramble; it could be leveraged for everyday in-town routes too with enough data. I'm also going to suggest to Strava that they morph their app to better support everyday cycling - after all, it'll enhance their ability to do more deals like Portland's, and enhance their revenue stream.

  4. That 'sea of Spandex' might not be the enemy here.
    They too are cyclists who often just want to get from Point A to Point B. If their greater confidence in traffic leads them to the most direct routes that others fear to take, it seems to me this information would be helpful to planners when they're choosing where to put improvements.
    Any sensible use of the data would have to include a good appreciation of the types of users who created it.

  5. Hey Brian (from Strava Metro) here and I just wanted to note that Strava does NOT have any revalue from advertisers and you will see zero ads on the app or website. The majority of the revenue comes from the premium offering. I would be happy to have a conversation with you about Metro and why we are doing this as it goes well beyond more revenue.
    Also the way we build up this data (as it is not the raw GPS data) allows for the user, in this case the city, to extract any riding purpose they want to explore out of the data. Therefore if its just commutes during 6 – 9am on Mondays they want to explore than that is easy to extract.
    One last key piece from my view is that there is no way to track this data back to Strava. In other words the data we provide back protects the users privacy and first and foremost.
    Cheers and Ride On