Driving Data: A Slippery Ethical Slope?

Image courtesy of Flickr. By Michael Loke

When thinking about telematics, it’s easy to conjure up images of fleet tracking via GPS, satellite navigation systems for driving directions, or even the ubiquitous on-board security and diagnostic systems. However, what’s less understood is that data on your driving habits, locations and more are being collected, sometimes without your explicit knowledge.

Image courtesy of Flickr. By Michael Loke
Image courtesy of Flickr. By Michael Loke

Most people don’t realize that driving data are being collected in 80% of the cars sold in the United States.  According to an Economist article, event data recorders (EDRs) are installed in most cars to analyze how airbags are deployed.  Some EDRs can also record events such as “forward and sideway acceleration and deceleration, vehicle speed, engine speed and steering inputs.”

The Economist article also says EDR data can show if a driver stepped on the gas just before an accident, or how quickly brakes were applied. And EDRs can also record whether seat belts were locked. These data can be used to augment a police crash report, corroborate accident events as remembered by a driver, or even be used against a driver when negligence is suspected.

This brings to mind a key question – who owns this data? The Economist article says that if you are the car owner, it’s probably you. However, if your car is totaled from a crash, and you sell it to the insurance company as part of a claim resolution process, then it’s likely your insurance company now owns the data.

Data can be used for purposes advantageous and disadvantageous to a driver.

An MIT Technology Review article cites how a new $70 device is now available to hook into your car’s EDR. This device wirelessly transmits data via Bluetooth to your mobile phone on your driving efficiency, cost of your daily commute, and information on possible engine issues.  And the company providing the device can deliver a “score” for your driving habits, gas savings and safety in relation to other drivers.

Driving data can also be collected for things you did not intend. For example, a team of scientists used mobile phone location data gleaned from wireless networks to detect commute patterns from more than 1 million users over three weeks in the San Francisco Bay Area.

These scientists discovered “cancelling some car trips from strategically located neighborhoods could drastically reduce gridlock and traffic jams.”  In other words, some neighborhoods are responsible for a fair portion of Bay Area freeway congestion.  The scientists claimed by cancelling just 1% of trips from these neighborhoods, congestion for everyone else could be reduced by 14%.

Of course, drivers in urban areas could be incentivized to use public transportation, carpool or telecommute, but it’s also possible that a more heavy-handed government approach could restrict commutes from these neighborhoods—on certain days—“for the good of all.”

Data are of course, benign. However, driving data from GPS and other devices are collected daily—and sometimes without your consent.

Altruistically, these data may ultimately be used to design better cars, better freeways and improve the overall quality of life for everyone concerned. Yet, it’s also important to realize that mobile data from daily road travels can also be utilized for tracking purposes, to pin down exactly where you are located at any given moment in time, and how you arrived.

And that thought should give everyone pause.

USAF Prevents Insomnia with Geospatial


What causes sleepless nights? For sure, too much caffeine can keep your eyelids open, however it’s more likely that worry and anxiety are the source. Fortunately, insomnia’s not the norm for United States Air Force (USAF) general officers and other government officials. That’s because with geospatial capabilities the USAF knows where every aircraft, piece of equipment and part is located and where it’s been—anywhere in the world.

Image Courtesy of Google Maps

Geospatial (also known as location intelligence) is a technology that allows enterprises to store, process and consume geographically based data. Geospatial data can be points (longitude, latitude), lines (a series of points), or even polygons representing a defined boundary. With geospatial, an enterprise can measure distances between two objects, or identify objects within, touching or traversing a specified perimeter. And while approximately 80% of corporate data has a location reference, there are plenty of enterprises not taking advantage of this valuable location information.

At Teradata Partners conference 2011 in San Diego, California, speakers Tim Cotton and Teal Walker presented how geospatial capabilities benefit the USAF. Specifically, leveraging data integrated from over one-hundred sources into Teradata database and Google Maps for visualization purposes, the USAF provides its users trusted information for inventory control including drill down capabilities to the part and supply level. And with geospatial, officials can visually examine where a particular asset has been throughout its lifecycle.

Teradata and Google Maps also help the USAF visually monitor “exceptions” via alerts—in real time—to track movement of materials, vehicles, commodities and assets. Now any aircraft or equipment going to the wrong place can be identified quickly and rerouted.  And lastly with geospatial capabilities, the USAF can easily perform “proximity analysis” to immediately discover assets nearby and available to maintain mission support.

Geospatial enables “big picture” location analysis. The USAF knows where its assets are located at all times, and can direct them quickly should the need arise. Important operational details are captured and readily available via this geospatial solution, allowing government officials to clear their minds and get a good night’s sleep.

The USAF can pinpoint and direct its most productive assets at a moment’s notice. Shouldn’t your business have this same advantage?

Beyond ZIP +4 to Location Intelligence

geospatialIn the United States, ZIP +4 assists marketers in targeting customers by city, neighborhood, or street, but geospatial location intelligence can help marketers perform much deeper analysis. And “analysis” is where the real value of geospatial lies.

A ZIP + 4 code according to Wikipedia; “uses the basic five-digit code plus four additional digits to identify a geographic segment within the five-digit delivery area, such as a city block, or a group of apartments.” And since the introduction of ZIP + 4 in 1983, this feature has assisted direct marketers (not to mention the USPS) in saving millions of dollars in costs.

While some marketers may decide that ZIP +4 is enough for customer targeting purposes, they’re missing out on a whole level of analysis available from geospatial that can help squeeze more return on investment from scarce marketing dollars.

The term “geospatial” describes a specific type of analytical software combined with geographic data. Going much further than simple ZIP +4 formats, geospatial comes to life via the transformation of a customer address into geographic coordinates (latitude and longitude). With geospatial, a whole host of marketing analytics is now available to marketers. Examples include:

  • Map locations. By overlaying geospatial data types with a mapping tool (such as Google Earth) marketers can pinpoint store or office locations in proximity to customers.
  • Calculate distances between locations. Stores, offices or distribution centers can be precisely calculated and then evaluated to examine if they are too close or too far apart. For example, marketers can determine the midpoint between two stores to meet the needs of an under-served customer segment. With geospatial, there’s no guessing, whereas it’s pretty difficult to calculate the distance between locations with ZIP +4.
  • Marketing by the mile (or less). Suppose you have a specific store location and you want to market to households 5.1 miles to the north, 2.5 miles to the south, etc; essentially building your own polygon for direct marketing purposes. With geospatial capability, you can do this exercise; ZIP +4—not so much.
  • Disaster planning. When an event occurs, let’s say a hurricane is brewing, will you be able to see which stores will be in its path? How about households? How might this event affect your ongoing or future marketing campaigns?
  • Risk management. Customer concentration or density analysis (Fig 1) can identify specific areas in which you may be taking on too much risk.

Figure 1. A visual example of density analysis. Source


Some marketers want to know, in comparing ZIP +4 vs. geospatial—which is best? The answer depends on your specific problem, resource constraints, and level of analysis required.

ZIP +4 can help a marketer drill down towards a fairly small area for targeting and the process of converting a mailing list to ZIP +4 is relatively inexpensive. Whereas, adding geo-spatial capabilities usually involves use of an analytical infrastructure (database and hardware), software applications (i.e. data integration and visualization tools), and both technical and business know-how to perform analysis and act upon newly discovered information.

ZIP +4 may work best as an inexpensive way to improve customer targeting. However, as seen from the above marketing examples, geospatial capabilities open a whole host of analytical options for marketers that ZIP +4 just cannot match.


  • With three billion mobile phone users in the world (and growing) will “location” become an increasingly important component of marketing in the next 3-5 years?
  • A business intelligence infrastructure is a necessary pre-cursor to geospatial analysis. What does this say about the skill sets marketers will need in the future to perform such analysis?

GPS and Geospatial: A Revolution in the Making?

blackberryMost telecommunication companies now have the ability to assign the latitude and longitude of a mobile handset via technologies such as GPS and Wi-Fi. With these technologies a whole host of location based services and applications can now accurately find both people and objects. However, the ability to track individuals in space and time with location-aware technologies has left some privacy advocates a bit queasy. Can the power of the GPS revolution be harnessed for good—or will it ultimately reduce our collective freedoms? read more