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Soofa benches collecting data from cellphones in downtown Newmarket

Town of Newmarket to use data collected to better understand business, visitors downtown

June 4, 2018
Teresa Latchford

Data from visitors' cellphones is being collected in downtown Newmarket.

In 2016, the Town of Newmarket unveiled its first Soofa bench, a solar-powered charging station for portable devices such as smartphones and tablets, at Riverwalk Commons. It was the first Soofa bench to be installed in Ontario and since, the town has added nine more to the Main Street area streetscape.

“We have 10 units in the downtown area, five benches and five cores,” explained Newmarket’s public works deputy director Mark Agnoletto, who confirmed nine of the units are collecting data.

Residents and visitors in the vicinity of a Soofa bench with their Wi-Fi enabled device, including smartphones and tablets, will be recognized by the subtle piece of technology, whether the device is attached to the Soofa via USB charging cable or not.

The benches search for Wi-Fi signals within reach and when they identify the specifics of that device, a random number or encryption is assigned to the device in an effort to protect personal information such as name, phone number and more.

“We (the town) never see the personal information of that device; we can only see that assigned number,” Agnoletto said.

The information being collected by the technology will allow the town to understand how many people visit the downtown core, what time of day they visit, how long they remain in the area and the flow and patterns of that individual’s movements.

“The information can help businesses determine what are the best times to be open or we can assess parking lot usage,” Agnoletto said. “We make a lot of decisions right now on perception or data based on a snapshot in time, but this will give us a better understanding of the big picture.”

Understanding peak visitation hours could also help the town service and offer programing at Riverwalk Commons when there are enough people to fully utilize activities.

“This collection process isn’t anything new and we share best practices with Soofa network cities,” he said. “We are only collecting the data we need and nothing more.”

Town staff members say they haven't received push back and to opt out, users only have to turn off their phones' Wi-Fi.