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.

 

Escaping to a tiny house/anti-McMansion for a getaway

The business Getaway offers tiny houses as an escape from the typical urban area, smartphone dominated life:

The “tiny houses,” or cabins, measure 8 by 20 feet, or about the size of a living room. They cost about $30,000 each to build and are shuttled on truck beds from a factory in Massachusetts to their destination.

McMansions they ain’t. In fact, these two are the anti-McMansion crowd, too.

They cluster the tiny houses in groups of 20 or so on leased woodland, just outside major cities. Each outpost has a long-term lease on private land. Cabins are spaced 200 feet from one another, allowing sufficient privacy. And you can drive right up to the door…

They share a love for community, neighborliness and a skepticism toward social media. They also share “old-fashioned values” that were affirmed with a course they took from Robert Putnam, who authored “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.”

While this business can be pitched as offering a return to nature and in-person experiences, I wonder who it is selling to. Two quick thoughts:

  1. This really is another lifestyle option for people to pursue. Work hard for weeks on end, get buried in your smartphone, and then detox for up to two weeks in a tiny house in the woods. Perhaps everything is a commodity these days but this is just another hotel option.
  2. This could reinforce the idea that tiny houses are unusual (there are still just a small number of them) and primarily for people with money (especially when they have nicer features or are priced nightly like a decent hotel). How many Americans could access this? How many would want to?

This is very different than tiny houses for affordable housing. This is tiny houses for profit (and perhaps some good time away from “normal” life).

The (in)action that results when 54% of teenagers are worried about spending too much time on their smartphones

A new Pew report suggests just over half of teenagers are concerned about smartphone use:

Teens hold mixed opinions about whether they spend too much time in front of screens …

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The initial headline finding about the 54% could be interpreted two ways:

  1. Only 54% of teenagers are worried about this???
  2. This is great that at least half of teenagers are worried about this!!!

But, the additional detail in the survey responses suggests the devil is in the details:

Interestingly, there is little association between teens’ views of how much time they spend on various screens and whether or not they have tried to limit their time on those devices. For instance, 53% of teens who say they spend too much time on their cellphone have ever cut back the amount of time they spend on their phone. That is nearly identical to the 55% of teens who say they spend about the right amount or too little time on their phone who have tried to limit their mobile usage.

In other words, a slight majority of teenagers are worried about their smartphone use but roughly half of that group has “ever” tried to limit their use. Their concerns are not necessarily translating into action. This could be for multiple reasons:

  1. Smartphone use is just so ubiquitous. Cutting back or not using the smartphone is tantamount to not being part of the 21st century.
  2. Peer pressure. If they do not participate as much, their social world passes them by.
  3. They do not have good models to look to as to how to limit their use. (This is where the data from the same report on parental concerns is interesting.)

This seems to be consistent with some of the work my colleagues and I have done regarding social network site use. Users may be able to articulate problems they face using social media and smartphones but very few of them opt out of the realm altogether because there are clear benefits to continuing.

How exactly teenagers and other smartphone and social media users will learn to employ what they would consider appropriate boundaries in using these devices and platforms is an open question.

Jane Jacobs, self-driving cars, and smartphone walking lanes

Fining distracted pedestrians who are paying attention to their smartphones is one option for communities. Here is another: a Chinese shopping center in Xi’an has a clearly marked lane for smartphone-using walkers.

Colorfully painted paths outside the Bairui Plaza shopping mall have been designated for walkers who cannot be bothered to look up from their devices…

Instead, messages painted along the lane cajole walkers to look up and pay attention.

“Please don’t look down for the rest of your life,” one message reads. “Path for the special use of the heads-down tribe,” another says…

Xi’an is not the first city to experiment with special areas for mobile phone use. In 2014, a street in the southwestern city of Chongqing was divided into two sections. On one side, phone use was prohibited, and on the other walkers were allowed to use their phones “at your own risk.”

The German city of Augsburg in 2016 embedded traffic lights on the surface of the street to prevent texting pedestrians from walking into traffic.

This will be a difficult issue to tackle for many communities. Here are two more additional ideas that may (or may not) help address these concerns:

  1. In reading multiple stories about distracted pedestrians on sidewalks, I am reminded of Jane Jacobs’ thoughts on lively sidewalk life. She argued that a lively street scene full of mixed uses will promote a thriving social scene. Could it be that sidewalks need to be more lively to keep the attention of pedestrians? If someone is walking down a bland block or through a shopping mall that does not really look any different than other shopping malls, it can be easier to pull out a smartphone. Of course, users might be so familiar with the walking area or their thoughts are elsewhere such that no level of liveliness would keep them from their smartphone.
  2. Perhaps some of the technology already being rolled out in cars and destined for significant use in driverless cars that helps cars sense other objects and respond accordingly could be implemented in cell phones. Imagine using your smartphone while walking and all of the sudden a radar screen pops up that indicates you are about to run into something. Or, perhaps it could have lights on different edges that could provide indications that objects are on that side. This is where Google Glass could be very useful: a display of nearby objects could always be within a user’s vision. Maybe technology will soon advance to a point where we have “bubbles” around us displaying information and nearby pedestrians or other objects could trigger some sort of alarm.

Separate walking lanes as well as punishments may not be enough. Given our reliance on technology to solve problems, I would not be surprised if new technology ends up as a substantial part of the solution proposed for problems posed by earlier technology. At the same time, this may be less about technology and more about the changing nature of public life.

Dwindling yet still present pay phones

Even as the number of pay phones has dropped dramatically in recent decades, they can still generate money:

In 1999, you could still plunk a coin into one at 2 million phone booths in the United States. Only 5% of those are left today. About a fifth of America’s 100,000 remaining pay phones are in New York, according to the FCC…

But pay phones remain a steady business for some of the 1,100 companies operating them across the country.

Pay phone providers reported $286 million in revenue in 2015, according to the most recent FCC report. They can still be profitable, particularly in places where there isn’t cell phone or landline coverage, said Tom Keane, president of Pacific Telemanagement Services. Keane’s company operates 20,000 pay phones around the country.

Yet, even if pay phones help serve the need for calls in certain circumstances, the article says the future of pay phones is “bleak”:

More low-income Americans, once a steady revenue stream for pay phones, have turned to prepaid phones or receive subsidizes on cellphones through the federal government’s Lifeline program. Ironically, providers contribute to the Lifeline fund on their phone bill taxes.

Four quick thoughts:

  1. What is most intriguing to me here is not that pay phones are dwindling – the rise of smartphones in everyone’s pockets may be just as remarkable – but that there may still be a market for a limited number of pay phones. Is there still a business opportunity in the remaining phones?
  2. Imagine something drastic happens to the cell phone network. How would people communicate over long distances with the decline of pay phones and landlines?
  3. What other features of physical spaces are still around but are also anachronistic like the pay phone? Perhaps the water tower on top of some buildings or the occasional hitching post.
  4. Last thought: it takes some work to have sufficient change to regularly use pay phones. I realized again recently that I rarely make cash purchases and this means I generate a lot less spare change than I did before. If I really needed to use a pay phone, it would take some work to get some change.

CT suburb considering fines for “distracted walking”

The suburb of Stamford, Connecticut is considering penalizing those walking under the influence of phones:

Texting or even talking on an electronic device may soon be illegal in Stamford if a proposal to outlaw ‘distracted walking’ is approved…

“They’re oblivious to cars,” Stamford City representative, John Zelinsky said.

Zelinsky said the Pedestrian Safety Ordinance is modeled after one approved in Honolulu late last month, and would carry a $30 fine if police catch you in the act.

Such behavior can be dangerous for both users and others on the sidewalks and streets. Yet, legislating distractedness out of walking, bicycling, and driving is a tricky business. Does walking and talking with someone count as distracted walking? Is it okay to suddenly stop right in the middle of a busy sidewalk to take a phone call?

I have long wondered about implementing traffic regulations on busy sidewalks (see a story from England about this). Sidewalks are public spaces but also important conduits for foot traffic and some kinds of vehicles. Overcrowding can occur; see the recent example of Manhattan. And how people use the sidewalks can vary dramatically with use ranging from running and powerwalking to strolling to standing or sitting for conversation.

Embedding traffic lights in sidewalks to help pedestrians

Incessant smartphone use is leading to urban adaptations:

That is why officials in the city of Augsburg became concerned when they noticed a new phenomenon: Pedestrians were so busy looking at their smartphones that they were ignoring traffic lights.

The city has attempted to solve that problem by installing new traffic lights embedded in the pavement — so that pedestrians constantly looking down at their phones won’t miss them.

“It creates a whole new level of attention,” city spokeswoman Stephanie Lermen was quoted as saying. Lermen thinks the money is wisely spent: A recent survey conducted in several European cities, including Berlin, found that almost 20 percent of pedestrians were distracted by their smartphones. Younger people are most likely to risk their safety for a quick look at their Facebook profiles or WhatsApp messages, the survey found…

But city officials say their work is justified: The idea to install such traffic lights came after a 15-year-old girl was killed by a tram. According to police reports, she was distracted by her smartphone as she crossed the tracks.

The direction of change is with the smartphone users: their safety matters and urban planners and officials must adjust.

I assume the future self-driving cars will be able to communicate with smartphones (or whatever devices we are all sporting at that point) to protect cars from the pedestrians. At that point, the cars will be far safer than the zombie or distracted or unpredictable activity of any pedestrian.

Using smartphones to collect important economic data

Virginia Postrel describes a new app used in a number of countries to gather economic data on the ground:

Founded in 2012, the San Francisco-based startup Premise began by looking for a way to supplement official price indices with a quick-turnaround measure of inflation and relative currency values. It needed “a scalable, cost-effective way to collect a lot of price data,” chief executive David Soloff said in an interview. The answer was an Android app and more than 30,000 smart-phone-wielding contractors in 32 countries.

The contractors, who are paid by the usable photo and average about $100 a month, take pictures aimed at answering specific economic questions: How do the prices in government-run stores compare to those in private shops? Which brands of cigarette packages in which locations carry the required tax stamp? How many houses are hooked into power lines? What’s happening to food prices? Whatever the question, the data needed to answer it must be something a camera can capture…

The result is a collection of price indices updated much more frequently and with less time lag — although also fewer indicative items — than monthly government statistics. For Bloomberg terminal subscribers, Premise tracks food and beverage prices in the U.S., China, India, Brazil and Argentina, using indices mirroring government statistics. It gets new information daily; Bloomberg publishes new data twice a week. Premise tracks a similar index in Nigeria for Standard Chartered bank, which has made the aggregate data public. (Premise clients can drill down to see differences across products, types of retailers, or regions.) While more volatile than official statistics, the figures generally anticipate them, serving as an early-warning system for economic trends…

Premise has government clients, and it carefully positions its work as a complement to official statistics, as well as to the academic Billion Prices Project, which scrapes massive amounts of price data from online sources but can’t say what cooking oil sells for in a corner shop. Make no mistake, however: Its methods also provide valuable competition to the official data. The point, after all, is to find out what’s actually happening, not what government reports will say in a few weeks.

This is an innovative way to get data more quickly. It would be interesting to see how reliable this data is. Now it remains to be seen how markets, governments, and others will use more up-to-date information.

More broadly, smartphones could be used to collect all sorts of data. See previous posts on using the microphone and the use of additional apps such as Twitter and Waze.

New data collection tool: the ever-on smartphone microphone

One company is using the microphone in smartphones to figure out what people are watching on TV:

TV news was abuzz Thursday morning after Variety reported on a presentation by Alan Wurtzel, a president at NBCUniversal, who said that streaming shows weren’t cutting into broadcast television viewership to the degree that much of the press seems to believe. Mr. Wurtzel used numbers that estimated viewership using data gathered by mobile devices that listened to what people were watching and extrapolating viewership across the country…

The company behind the technology is called Symphony Advanced Media. The Observer spoke to its CEO Charles Buchwalter, about how it works, via phone. “Our entire focus is to add insights and perspectives on an entire new paradigm around how consumers are consuming media across  platforms,” he told the Observer…

Symphony asks those who opt in to load Symphony-branded apps onto their personal devices, apps that use microphones to listen to what’s going on in the background. With technology from Gracenote, the app can hear the show playing and identify it using its unique sound signature (the same way Shazam identifies a song playing over someone else’s speakers). Doing it that way allows the company to gather data on viewing of sites like Netflix and Hulu, whether the companies like it or not. (Netflix likes data)

It uses specific marketing to recruit “media insiders” into its system, who then download its app (there’s no way for consumers to get it without going through this process). In exchange, it pays consumers $5 in gift cards (and up) per month, depending on the number of devices he or she authorizes.

The undertone of this reporting is that there are privacy concerns lurking around the corner. Like the video camera now built into most laptops, tablets, and smartphones that might be turned on by nefarious people, most of these devices also have microphones that could be utilized by others.

Yet, as noted here, there is potential to gather data through opt-in programs. Imagine a mix between survey and ethnographic data where an opt-in program can get an audio sense of where the user is. Or record conversations to examine both content and interaction patterns. Or to look at the noise levels people are surrounded by. Or to simply capture voice responses to survey questions that might allow respondents to provide more details (because they are able to interact with the question more as well as because their voice patterns might also provide insights).

The dangers of distracted walkers

Watch out for those texting pedestrians:

Distracted walking is most common among millennials aged 18 to 34, but women 55 and older are most likely to suffer serious injuries, including broken bones, according to a 2013 study in Accident Analysis & Prevention. Visits to emergency rooms for injuries involving distracted pedestrians on cellphones more than doubled between 2004 and 2010 and continues to grow. Among more than 1,000 people hospitalized after texting while walking, injuries included a shattered pelvis and injuries to the back, head and neck.

According to the National Safety Council, “the rise in cellphone-distracted walking injuries parallels the eightfold increase in cellphone use in the last 15 years.” Although the council found that 52 percent of distracted walking episodes occurred at home, the nationwide uptick in pedestrian deaths resulting from texting while walking has prompted the federal government to offer grants of $2 million to cities to combat distracted walking…

Alas, most people seem to think the problem involves other people. They’re not the ones who walk distracted. A new survey of some 6,000 people released last week by the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, found that while 74 percent said that “other people” were usually or always walking while distracted, only 29 percent said the same about themselves. And only 46 percent considered the behavior “dangerous.”

I don’t do this much myself for two reasons. First, it slows my walking speed down. I’d rather get to my destination quicker and then text. Second, I generally don’t like impeding pedestrian traffic, whether the issue is texting, stopping for a conversation, gawking, etc.

Maybe the best solution – hinted at in the end of the article – is to be a defensive pedestrian in the same way that you are supposed to practice defensive driving. Be alert. Look around. Be aware of pedestrians and other possible obstacles. Have an alternative action in mind should others not respond appropriately.

Perhaps we should have a talking and texting lane for those who want to engage in this?