It’s also different in another way: An organization could be conducting this group data mining without the miners being aware of it. It has raised privacy concerns, and the debate isn’t going to stop.
Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC) and the University of California at Berkeley have been testing "participatory urbanism" that employs “networked mobile personal measurement instruments” where participating consumers are “agents of change.” A project in Accra, Ghana involved taxis and individuals with portable air pollution monitors, which incorporated GPS, to measure pollution around the city and map the levels on the Web. Cellphones weren’t used, but this is a logical next step.
Purdue University is working with Indiana to develop a system of GPS-enabled cellphones with integrated radiation sensors to detect terrorist “dirty” or nuclear bombs. Small radiation monitors already exist and could be incorporated into phones without adding much bulk, according to the press release.
College researchers tested a cellphone network that successfully detected sealed, weak radiation sources placed around the campus. Researchers are enthusiastic about wireless Internet capabilities, since data can be transmitted in real time. This illustrates the “wisdom” of wireless crowds because multiple detections would be required to determine an accurate location.
Voluntary, involuntary group monitoring
Researchers also are beginning to monitor the locations and habits of the cellular users. Several years ago, "Reality Mining" began at MIT’s Media Lab. During the 2004-2005 academic year, the movements of some 100 MIT students were monitored via Nokia phones. The project's goals included the evolution of social networks, the predictability of people’s lives, and changing group interactions. More than 350,000 hours (about 40 years) of data were collected.
The monitoring was voluntary. But what if your movements were monitored without your knowledge? A research paper in this month’s Nature used location data collected for six months from more than 100,000 cellphone users in an unnamed country (not the United States).
The researchers from Northeastern University studied travel patterns and found most people don’t travel very far from their homes. The concerns aren’t about the paper’s results but whether it was illegal for the cellular operator (also unnamed) to turn over the data. The data didn’t include names or phone numbers, just anonymous ID codes. An article in The Register reports it would be illegal in the U.S. because cellular operators can’t turn over location information without the subscriber’s prior consent. According to the article, similar requirements exist in the European Union.
This is just the start of wirelessly monitoring group behavior. For example, a few days ago Sense Networks debuted its Citysense cellular service that’s designed to employ a variety of location techniques, such as GPS, WiFi hotspots, cellular triangulation, and even GPS logs from taxis and RFID sensors.
The phone displays red “heat maps" that show where large numbers of people are congregating. Users may click on Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) or Yelp Inc. (NYSE: YELP) to determine what’s at those locations -- clubs, restaurants, etc. The software also learns user preferences and matches them to appropriate areas of activity. The company says its “Macrosense” technology is the “first platform capable of collecting and analyzing massive amounts of anonymous, aggregate location data in real-time.”
There you have it: A world where increasingly large amounts of wireless-based group data are being analyzed second-by-second by corporations, government institutions, schools, and, of course, Web companies. There’s good and bad here. But we need to be very sure about who’s sifting through our data and for what it’s being used.
— Alan Reiter, President, Wireless Internet & Mobile Computing