Academic research with all that location data collected by smartphones

If you really want to understand places in the United States, wouldn’t the location data collected by smartphone apps be useful?

At least 75 companies receive anonymous, precise location data from apps whose users enable location services to get local news and weather or other information, The Times found. The database reviewed by The Times — a sample of information gathered in 2017 and held by one company — reveals people’s travels in startling detail, accurate to within a few yards and in some cases updated more than 14,000 times a day.

These companies sell, use or analyze the data to cater to advertisers, retail outlets and even hedge funds. It is a hot market, with sales of location-targeted advertising reaching an estimated $21 billion this year. IBM has gotten into the industry, with its purchase of the Weather Channel’s apps…

To evaluate location-sharing practices, The Times tested 20 apps, most of which had been flagged by researchers and industry insiders as potentially sharing the data. Together, 17 of the apps sent exact latitude and longitude to about 70 businesses. Precise location data from one app, WeatherBug on iOS, was received by 40 companies. When contacted by The Times, some of the companies that received that data described it as “unsolicited” or “inappropriate.”…

Apps form the backbone of this new location data economy. The app developers can make money by directly selling their data, or by sharing it for location-based ads, which command a premium. Location data companies pay half a cent to 2 cents per user per month, according to offer letters to app makers reviewed by The Times.

Sure, this could all be monetized for advertising purposes. But, it’s longer-lasting influence could come in helping us better understand location patterns across people. There are many different ways to understand places, the sets of human activity and meaning associated with particular spatial arrangements. The location data from apps could reveal all sorts of interesting things: commuter patterns and responses to traffic/delays, how far people travel from home or work for certain activities, where leisure time is spent, and how locations differ across various demographics (race/ethnicity, social class, gender, age, etc.).

What are the odds that this data will be made available to researchers? Very slim. But, I hope someone is able to get access to it and find some intriguing patterns in urban and suburban life.

 

Wealthy Americans: “Zip code is who we are”

I would argue this is not just true of “the new American aristocracy“; where people live has a significant impact on their lives.

Zip code is who we are. It defines our style, announces our values, establishes our status, preserves our wealth, and allows us to pass it along to our children.

On an everyday basis, living in a certain location could affect these aspects of life:

  • social networks and local relationships with different groups of people (race/ethnicity, social class, similar interests)
  • schools
  • access to jobs
  • other local amenities such as community services, recreation, shopping
  • health

Now, the upper class may use their zip code in unique ways. The full paragraph that includes the excerpt at the beginning of the post suggests the zip code becomes a way to keep others out:

Zip code is who we are. It defines our style, announces our values, establishes our status, preserves our wealth, and allows us to pass it along to our children. It’s also slowly strangling our economy and killing our democracy. It is the brick-and-mortar version of the Gatsby Curve. The traditional story of economic growth in America has been one of arriving, building, inviting friends, and building some more. The story we’re writing looks more like one of slamming doors shut behind us and slowly suffocating under a mass of commercial-grade kitchen appliances.

This has been happening for decades in the United States as residents of particular races and ethnicities (primarily whites) and social class (primarily the middle and upper classes) had various mechanisms, now some illegal and others more nebulous (such as exclusionary zoning), to keep those they did not like away from their residences. And this will likely continue for decades more, perhaps particularly for the top 10%.

True for Chicago and elsewhere: “cities don’t just crop up in random places”

At Instapundit, Gail Heriot explains how Chicago came to be:

FATHER JACQUES MARQUETTE AND LOUIS JOLLIET: On this day in 1673, a 35-year-old Jesuit priest and a 27-year-old fur trader began their exploration of Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River, leaving from St. Ignace at the north end of Lake Michigan. From there, they went up the Fox River and then overland (carrying their canoes) to the Wisconsin River, which took them to the Mississippi River. Out of fear of running into the Spanish, they turned back at the Arkansas River. By then, they had confirmed that the Mississippi does indeed run to the Gulf of Mexico.

The route back was different. And this becomes important to the history of the country and especially of the City of Chicago: Friendly Native Americans told them that if they go up the Illinois River and the Des Plaines, rather than the Wisconsin, it would make the trip easier. That’s because the portage distance from the Mississippi watershed and the Great Lakes watershed was shortest there. The Chicago River, which dumped into Lake Michigan was only a short distance away.

If you’ve ever wondered why Chicago grew into a major city so quickly, this is why: Location, location, location.  In the modern world it’s easy to miss how much topographical issues like that mattered (and in different ways continue to matter).  But cities don’t just crop up in random places.

The locations of major population centers may seem fairly obvious now: a large population has been there for a long time and the city by its own large inertia continues to draw more people. This may be particularly true for cities outside of North America where there may be centuries or millennia of accumulated settlement.

Yet, looking at the founding of major cities in the United States often shows that there are located at places that provided major transportation advantages for people of that time. Even though this might be less obvious now since we do not think much about sea travel and shipping, a number of major coastal cities have protected ports. Inland, many cities are located on key bodies of water, primarily rivers. Even more recently, communities developed around railroad junctions and highway intersections where a lot of traffic converged.
Perhaps in a “perfect world,” major cities would be spread out at fairly even intervals. But, development does not typically work this way: it often follows earlier transportation links or patterns of development.

New gadgets, apps want more location data from users

Location data is valuable and more new gadgets make use of the information:

Location-tracking lets developers build fast, useful, personalized apps. They’re enticing, but they come with tradeoffs: your gadgets and apps maintain a log of where you’ve been and what you’re doing, and more of them than you think are sharing that data with others.

It’s going to advertisers, mostly, so they can lure you into the Starbucks a block away or the merch tent at Coachella. It’s as creepy as any other targeted marketing, but most of us have come to accept that it comes with the territory. Jennifer Lynch, a senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, says it goes deeper. Your data might get sold to your credit reporting agency, which wants to know more about you as it determines your credit score. It might go to your insurance company, which is very interested in your whereabouts. It might be subpoenaed by the government, for just about any reason. Maybe none of that is happening. Maybe all of it is. There’s really no way for us to know…

Your phone’s ability to pinpoint your exact location and use that info to deliver services—a meal, a ride, a tip, a coupon—is reason for excitement. But this world of always-on GPS raises questions about what happens to our data. How much privacy are we willing to surrender? What can these services learn about our activities? What keeps detailed maps of our lives from being sold to the highest bidder? These have been issues as long as we’ve had cellphones, but they are more pressing than ever.

Another major trade-off that I suspect most users will make without much fuss in the coming years. The cynical take on the advantages for the user is that this is primarily about customizable marketing that can account for both your individual traits and where exactly you are. In other words, sharing location data will give consumers new opportunities. More consumerism! On the flip side, it is less clear how or when location data might be used against you. But, when it is, it probably won’t be good.

The broader issue here is whether people should have geographical freedom that is not known to others. This is increasingly difficult in today’s world even as we would celebrate the mobility Americans have within their own communities, country, and to travel throughout the world.

Game identifying random locations through Google Streetview

Love to see random sites around the world? Check out the game Locatestreet where you are given a picture from Google Streetview and you have to guess (with multiple choice and with the opportunity to utilize a few hints) the correct location.

After playing the version with random US locations, I discovered that context matters – check out the housing styles and the vegetation for some insights into the location. Indeed, you might just see lots of trees and landscape. Also, knowing where population centers are can go a long way in making a closer guess as to where the exact picture was taken…

h/t Atlantic Cities

New Yorkers who find their dream home

The New York Times looks at seven New Yorkers who worked really hard to acquire their dream home:

These people go to remarkable lengths to snag their dream home. They hound real estate agents, besiege landlords, tack notes on doors, drive doormen crazy. They plant their names on waiting lists for hard-to-access buildings. They send beseeching letters to owners, promising to be model tenants. Even if they don’t spend the rest of their days in the home of their dreams — because even the happiest love affairs sometimes wind down or crash entirely — they rarely express regrets.

There’s a reason such obsessions flourish in New York. “In this city, we’re all walkers,” said Andrew Phillips, a Halstead broker who has received his share of “Call me the second the place becomes available” entreaties. “We pass the same building again and again, we walk down the same block, and we think, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to live there?’ Being a New Yorker is being slightly voyeuristic. And as we take the same route over and over, our dreams start forming.”

The fact that demand typically outstrips supply compounds the yearning. “The available housing stock is so limited, so fought over,” Mr. Phillips said. “Plus, most people can’t afford exactly what they want. Plus everyone wants what they can’t have.”

Reading these seven stories, I was struck that each of these New Yorkers seem to have a heightened sense of space or rootedness. This means that particular locations or housing units were really important to them and then prompted them to center their lives around their home. The article suggests this could be due to the tight housing market in New York City, simnply supply and demand, but I wonder if there are other cultural factors at work. This behavior sounds like it is in contrast to many Americans – after all, 11.6% mobility over one year is an all-time low. For more mobile Americans, either they have many dream homes or they don’t have the same attachment to places. Both of these attitudes could be related to consumerism which would suggest homes are just another commodity or product. It could also be tied to a more suburban lifestyle where homes are more plentiful and the specific neighborhood might matter less than the features of the home or the idea of living the suburban lifestyle.

Using GIS to study Gettysburg, the Holocaust, and the American iron industry

Smithsonian takes a look at a historian who uses GIS to get a new perspective on important historical events:

Her principal tool is geographic information systems, or GIS, a name for computer programs that incorporate such data as satellite imagery, paper maps and statistics. Knowles makes GIS sound simple: “It’s a computer software that allows you to map and analyze any information that has a location attached.” But watching her navigate GIS and other applications, it quickly becomes obvious that this isn’t your father’s geography…

What emerges, in the end, is a “map” that’s not just color-coded and crammed with data, but dynamic rather than static—a layered re-creation that Knowles likens to looking at the past through 3-D glasses. The image shifts, changing with a few keystrokes to answer the questions Knowles asks. In this instance, she wants to know what commanders could see of the battlefield on the second day at Gettysburg. A red dot denotes General Lee’s vantage point from the top of the Lutheran Seminary. His field of vision shows as clear ground, with blind spots shaded in deep indigo. Knowles has even factored in the extra inches of sightline afforded by Lee’s boots. “We can’t account for the haze and smoke of battle in GIS, though in theory you could with gaming software,” she says…

Though she’s now been ensconced at Middlebury for a decade, Knowles continues to push boundaries. Her current project is mapping the Holocaust, in collaboration with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and a team of international scholars. Previously, most maps of the Holocaust simply located sites such as death camps and ghettos. Knowles and her colleagues have used GIS to create a “geography of oppression,” including maps of the growth of concentration camps and the movement of Nazi death squads that accompanied the German Army into the Soviet Union…

Aware of these pitfalls, Knowles is about to publish a book that uses GIS in the service of an overarching historical narrative. Mastering Iron, due out in January, follows the American iron industry from 1800 to 1868. Though the subject matter may not sound as grabby as the Holocaust or Gettysburg, Knowles has blended geographical analysis with more traditional sources to challenge conventional wisdom about the development of American industry.

Sounds pretty interesting. Having detailed geographic data can change one’s perspective. But there are two things that need to happen first before researchers can take advantage of such information:

1. Using GIS well requires a lot of training and then being able to find the right data for the analysis.

2. Using geographic data like this requires a change in mindset from the idea that geography is just a background variable. In sociology, analysis often controls for some geographic variation but doesn’t often consider the location or space as the primary factor.

While GIS is a hot method right now, I think these two issues will hold it back from being widely used for a while.