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Data gurus dig into license plate trackers

  • Blog Post by: Eric Roper
  • December 18, 2012 - 9:57 AM

Data miners are starting to dig into the massive license plate tracking database released last week by the Minneapolis Police Department.

One of them, Mark Pitts, has used mapping software to show where each Minneapolis license plate reader (LPR) travels on a given day. The city has approximately eight mobile readers, split between police and regulatory services vehicles. 

His research is derived from a database containing more than 2.1 million plate reads, less than a million of which contained location information from mobile readers. The rest were from stationary cameras, located at undisclosed locations in the city.

Here is a video Pitts, whose company is called Datalytics LLC, produced showing the route the mobile readers took on a specific day: 

Pitts says he isn't concerned about criminals using this information, but rather "individuals, organizations, or foreign governments who might use these data to assist in planning and executing operations intended to do harm." The Minneapolis-based "data scientist" also says he was able to manipulate the data to locate the city's stationary cameras.

As for the concern that this data could be used for stalking, Pitts believes it's relatively overblown. Only 75 plates have been scanned more than 40 times in this database, he writes. "While you could certainly use these data and a little luck to track and find a vehicle, I would estimate the risk to any single individual is very low," Pitts wrote.

Pitts isn't the only person mining the database for interesting tidbits -- seven people received the data, including a Star Tribune reporter. Researchers at the University of Minnesota are parsing through the aggregate data for possible lessons about “commuting patterns or how neighborhoods interact,” said geography professor Steven Manson.

Arthur D’Antonio III, who works in Web startups in California, is hoping it can be used to "create value.” He said last Thursday that he was still sifting through it to determine possible uses.

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