Posts Tagged ‘Global Positioning System’

Navstar-2F satellite of the Global Positioning...

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All technology, if it’s truly powerful, can be put to malign purposes as well as good – and if it can’t it’s probably not the game-changer you thought it to be.

Evgeny Morozov has advanced the evil argument at length in his book The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet, so it’s not difficult to guess what he thinks of China using GPS to track 20m people in Beijing night and day.

The project is called Information Platform of Real-Time Citizen Movement according to the South China Morning Post, though some might prefer the pithier moniker of spying.

Chinese officials say they want it to monitor movements of people as a way of improving public travel and easing traffic jams. The initial reaction to that might be: “Yeah, right.” But they’re not the only ones tracking the tide of humankind.

In the US, Waze does just that for commuters, giving free turn-by-turn navigation information, while in the UK Portsmouth-based Path Intelligencetracks footfall in places like airports, shopping centres and exhibition centres to ensure they work to maximum efficiency.

Harnessing a big-data picture from mobile movements can show which areas are under-used, where things should be positioned for optimal benefit and even help the timetabling of cleaning operations. Path makes the point that the people it tracks remain anonymous, but even so suspicions linger about how the technology might be used.

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waze logoFor all the technical barriers to the roll-out of new technology, there’s another obstacle that looms just as large and crops up across multiple platforms – the question of privacy.

It’s at the heart of many emerging services in which the balance of uptake will be measured by the degree of information surrendered, against the benefit given back.

Get it right and the rewards can be huge. Get it wrong and the reputational kickback can be severe as both Google and Facebook have learned in recent times.

As I write Facebook’s attempt to give people more control of their privacy through Groups is attracting criticism.

Time will tell whether the concerns are justified, but every time confidence takes a knock from lapses or misjudgements the potential benefits from surrendering data become much harder to achieve.

In the case of Waze, a free UGC mobile app which shares traffic conditions in real-time, the balance weighs heavily in favour of drivers.

The motorist surrenders his or her location data – anonymously – and that allows Waze to gauge average traffic speeds on different stretches of road.

By aggregating the data and then feeding it to live traffic maps Waze gives drivers the chance to make instant decisions about the best routes for their journey.

Another, less visible, service is Skyhook, a location engine embedded in many phones.

Conventional GPS doesn’t work indoors and even assisted GPS which combines satellite tracking and cell tower triangulation can be patchy.

Skyhook claims an edge over these methods by adding in wifi hotspots to get a location fix accurate to 10-20 metres.

By aggregating position fixes, – again anonymously – CEO Ted Morgan says he “knows where everybody is, but not where you are”.

His company is collaborating with researchers at MIT and retailers to mine the data to extract value.

Focusing on pedestrians, he says he could also tell advertisers how many people have walked past a street billboard.

“Imagine you have 10 Gap stores in San Francisco. I can tell you where to put the 11th based on patterns of people”, he adds.

“No-one’s ever had this much location data, cross-device, cross-carrier, at this level of accuracy.”

Google tried, of course, and began collecting wifi data as it gathered images from its Streetview vehicles.

In doing so it also harvested snippets of private information – though a Google representative claimed it was done inadvertently and none of it was used in its services.

In the instances of Waze and Skyhook, the benefits are obvious, but cross the line as Google did, even inadvertently, and repairing reputational damage can be difficult to erase.