On 17 May 2019, the Sniffer Bike project was launched in the Province of Utrecht. Through a collaboration between the Province, Municipalities, RIVM, Civity and Sodaq, bicycles were fitted with measuring equipment that allowed residents to play a role in collecting data on, among other things, bicycle use (using GPS) and air quality. Since then, things have been moving fast: besides the city of Utrecht, Sniffer Bikes have been introduced in cities like Zwolle, Gelderland (FoodValley), Den Bosch, Eindhoven and Sittard.
A better perspective of cyclists
An important reason why the Province of Utrecht launched the pilot was to get a better perspective of cyclists. According to Eric van Dijk (Province of Utrecht), this is in part because there is still a lack of valuable knowledge on cyclists’ behaviour, but also because the research helps to ensure that cycles can be better represented in data and models than they are at present.
The Sniffer Bike project has therefore been used to gain valuable insight into the origins, destinations, and typical routes of participants. Also, analyses were made of trip lengths and travel times, with plans to further use the data through smart combinations with other data sources and analysis of, for example, waiting times. The sensor data was used to analyse air quality and the influence of environmental data on the travel behaviour of participants. Furthermore, there are opportunities to research the currently unexploited data on heat (stress) and unevenness in the bicycle infrastructure. Beyond the data itself, the results also include valuable lessons on practical matters such as how many participants are needed to produce usable data and what kind of issues one might encounter when processing it. One of the risks, for example, is that there are not enough respondents or data to carry out a proper analysis and to ensure privacy.
Although the experiment did produce useful data, you could say that the greatest success for the Province was something else entirely. Following the initial launch, it soon became clear that there was a common interest here, both with the participants and with various areas of focus within the Province (air quality, bicycle data, knowledge development). This made it possible to have constructive and substantive discussions. “You encounter other ideas, other lines of reasoning,” explains Van Dijk. “Most people are in good spirits and open to exchanging ideas, but you need a platform to do that.” The Sniffer Bike project provides this platform and enables citizens to participate in the discussion about important issues. The Province, therefore, intends to further expand this new form of digital participation and cooperation.
The project is a concrete and sometimes almost playful concept, but it deals with a major theme: Digital Participation. Society is becoming increasingly digital, and this offers both opportunities and threats. Although technological developments are the basis for progress, it is also important to have an eye for those who may not benefit from these developments. This is what digital participation is all about. Within digital participation, we can distinguish some themes:
Many of the above themes come together in the Sniffer Bike concept. So it is not surprising that it is popular in other places as well. Since the end of 2019, Sniffer Bikes have been active in Zwolle as part of the BITS project. Here they are contributing to the larger project, SensHagen, in which the Municipality, citizens and professional organisations collect data about the living environment. The data from the Sniffer Bike are combined with data from fixed measurement points in the neighbourhood.
Now the Municipality is working on a larger tender to increase the number of people using the bikes. The aim is not only to collect more data but also to achieve a city-wide and representative group of participants. To achieve this, they are cooperating with, among others, the Fietsersbond and housing corporations.
Next, Zwolle wants to focus on better utilisation of the data. Apart from making the data available and presenting them to citizens and policymakers in the right way, according to Geert Janssen (Municipality of Zwolle), this involves making smart combinations with other data sources:
“How can you link all that data from the air quality to the data we already have? Where are the cyclists? Where are certain trees? Where has the oak processionary been reported? For example, can we say something about the presence of the oak processionary caterpillar next to busy cycling routes and provide alternative routes, or is combating it a better idea?”
For context: the oak processionary caterpillar has been a real nuisance for cyclists in some areas the last couple of years, as it causes a very annoying itch.
The next step is the development of a mobility dashboard on which not only the data from the Sniffer Bike but also other mobility data are presented attractively and understandably. In the future, the data may also be linked to the Digital Twin City, a kind of digital copy of the town in which various data sources are combined and made transparent. For cyclists themselves, local authorities are considering route advice based on personal preferences. Using the Sniffer Bike data, in addition to insight into the quickest routes, people might also receive advice about the healthiest and most attractive routes, making route planners increasingly personalized.
First and foremost, the Municipality is enthusiastic about the concept, says Geert. “The best part is that you involve residents in their environment, make them aware of what is happening in that environment, collect data and do something with that data. We really get something out of it and it is not just a toy of the data specialists. I think that’s the charm of it.”
At the same time, we see new forms of the Sniffer Bike concept emerging in Zwolle. Deelfiets Nederland is equipping their electric shared bicycles and delivery bicycles with built-in sniffer sensors. They are also investing in the further development of the concept, such as a personal dashboard, smaller circuit boards, the possibility to power the sensors with a dynamo as well as collecting nitrogen data. When asked why Deelfiets Nederland is investing so much in this project, Oumar Sylla (founder of the company) says it has to do with the positive energy: “I like to inspire people, to create that wow effect. To make people ask themselves: Is that possible? Yes, it is possible.”
It is also commercially interesting for the company. Deelfiets Nederland is dependent on municipalities and other partners for locations where they can offer their bikes. Making the sniffing data available is therefore also a unique selling point used to offer bicycles in attractive places (such as train station locations). “You make space available to us, and you get data in return.”
According to Oumar, it is important to handle the data in the right way. This means that they not only make the data available but also think carefully about how it is presented and how privacy must be handled. In addition to bringing in knowledge for this purpose, Deelfiets Nederland cooperates with University of Applied Sciences Windesheim for the analysis of the data. Currently, the company is working on the expansion of its bicycle sharing system to other cities, which will also provide new data.
Even abroad, there is interest in the concept. One partner in the BITS project has plans to work with Sniffer Bikes and also collect quality data. There are increasing indications that noise has a big impact on quality of life and the Sniffer Bike (and possibly also ‘LuisterFiets’ (Listening Bike)?) is a nice tool to gain more insight into this still growing area of interest.
A bright future for the Sniffer Bike
It is clear the Sniffer Bike is on the rise, and is still finding new opportunities for further development. There are still many possibilities when it comes to using other sensors, new data applications, and new forms of collaboration between government, citizens, businesses, and research. Digital participation is becoming an increasingly important theme and the Sniffer Bike provides a glimpse of what this could mean for the role of governments.
Reinventing this role can be a challenge, Eric van Dijk agrees: “What are you still in charge of as a government? You become more of a partner than a top-down organisation, but of course, you still have the responsibility to monitor the balance between individual and general interests. This is a slow process, but it is important to think about the government’s place. This kind of project helps us to find our way in this.”