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.

Data Tracking for Asthma Sufferers?

Despite the recent privacy row with smartphones and other GPS enabled devices, a Wisconsin doctor is proposing use of an inhaler with built in global positioning system to track where and when asthma sufferers use their medication. By capturing data on inhaler usage, the doctor proposes that asthma sufferers can learn more about what triggers an attack and the medical community can learn more about this chronic condition. However, the use of such a device has privacy implications that need serious consideration.

For millions of people on a worldwide basis, asthma is no joke. An April 9, 2011 Economist article mentions that asthma affects more than 300 million people, almost 5% of the world’s population.

Scientists and the medical community have long pondered the question; ‘What triggers an asthma attack?’ Is it pollen, dust in the air, mold spores or other environmental factors? The key to learning the answer to this question is not only relevant for asthma sufferers themselves, but also society (and healthcare costs) as there are more than 500,000 asthma related hospital admissions every year.

In an effort to better understand factors behind asthma attacks, Dr. David Van Sickle, co-founded a company that makes an inhaler with GPS to track usage. Van Sickle once worked for the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and he believes that with better data society can understand asthma in a deeper manner.  By capturing data on asthma inhaler usage and then plotting the results with visualization tools, Van Sickle hopes that this information can be sent back to primary care physicians to help patients understand asthma triggers.

A better understanding of asthma makes sense for patients, health insurers and society at large. The Economist article notes that pilot studies of device usage thus far have resulted in basic understandings of asthma coming into question. However, there are surely privacy implications in the capture, management and use of this data, despite reassurances from the medical community that data will be anonymized and secured.

Should societal and patient benefits outweigh privacy concerns when it comes to tracking asthma patients? What do you think?  I’d love to hear from you.

Data Visualization – One City at a Time

crowds in RomeEver wondered what the “rhythm” of your city looks like? In cities like Rome and New York, aggregated real-time data from mobile providers is helping government officials monitor traffic flows, efficiently utilize transportation networks, and even plan for large-scale events helping to improve overall “citizen satisfaction.” Is real-time data visualization coming to a city near you?

The proliferation of mobile and GPS technologies (sometimes in the same handset), are making it possible for city planners, government officials, and even businesses to gain a pulse of the daily movements of entire populations.

An article in the Wall Street Journal, “Cellphone Data Track Our Migration Patterns”, June 10, 2008, mentions how mobile providers are allowing access of anonymized and aggregated location data to social scientists, physicists and urban planners.

The article notes, “More than 3.3 billion wireless-phone subscribers world-wide have, in effect, voluntarily adopted devices that record their daily movements in the same way satellite sensors monitor migrating birds, whales, bears and other wildlife.”

Indeed, network physicist Albert-Laszlo Barabasi says that since practically everyone has a mobile phone, “Everything we do leaves an electronic fingerprint somewhere.”

While the concept of tracking human movement raises the eyebrows of many privacy advocates, the benefits to exploratory analysis of GPS and mobile data—according to the article—are myriad including, “aid(ing) emergency relief efforts in natural disasters, as well as improving urban planning, public transportation and traffic control.”

The Wall Street Journal article also mentions another case study where MIT and Telecom Italia have teamed through Project “Real Time Rome” to help its citizens and officials make better decisions regarding resource utilization.

Overlaying telecommunications data and Google Earth allows Project “Real Time Rome” to dynamically reveal “the rhythm of the city” through six visualizations:

Pulse – helps determine commuting patterns and patterns of use for transportation networks
Connectivity—ensures public transportation is located near populations
Flow—helps answer the question, “Where is traffic moving or flowing to?”
Icons— helps answer the question, “Which landmarks in Rome attract more people”?
Visitors—discovers where tourists congregate
Gathering—during special events (i.e. Madonna concert), helps determine how people occupy and move through different parts of Rome

Sophisticated analytical applications and data warehousing technologies are helping “bring data to life” for governments, citizens and businesses. I’ve also thought of some other ways this mobile/GPS data could create advantages:

• Businesses could examine historical patterns of people movement to decide where to open their next store/branch
• Real estate agents (commercial and residential) could use the data to determine migration patterns over time
• Businesses could examine the data to determine staffing and inventory levels by day or even hour based on historical traffic patterns in their vicinity
• Variable pricing could be enacted for access to roads or public transportation based on peak-demand usage (ex: toll roads into a city could charge more for drivers during peak hours much like London is doing)
• Chambers of commerce and city officials could use the data to steer promotions/traffic towards a new downtown renovation, places of interest, less frequently visited tourist attractions.
• Special events—mid-city concerts for example—can be modeled based on historical data of traffic, pedestrian flow etc, to ensure future events are more accessible

Through the use of powerful data-visualization applications, government agencies, businesses and citizens are able to explore data to uncover mathematical patterns and connections to help improve the lives of everyone concerned.

So, the next time you visit a major city, hit all the tourist attractions in a timely fashion, avoid the crowds and notice that trains, buses, and taxis run on time and are conveniently located, remember it’s probably not an accident. Good service rarely is.

What are your thoughts?

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