The Greater Good: How Cities Use Aggregated Location Data

Worried about companies selling your data to advertisers? Being a guinea pig for social research? Having your shopping data sold to hospitals? Well, that’s so last week. This week, data trading is the new currency.

Forbes describes how Rio de Janeiro’s Department of Transport is watching aggregated data feeds from smartphones being driven and walked around Rio thanks to popular apps Waze and Moovit. They are also talking to cycling app Strava to start tracking cyclists as well. Their goal is to use this data to better control and route traffic in and around Rio. In return, the apps receive information from the city’s data collectors such as sensors and traffic cameras. Waze plans to integrate this information into the service they then provide their users.

Highway 101 into San Francisco. Traffic free for a change.

Highway 101 into San Francisco. Traffic free for a change.

There is a lot to like about this use of users’ location information. The “greater good” is achieved by aggregating individual user data to provide a better experience for everyone. Imagine using such technology after special events to help traffic cops route traffic in a smarter way, coordinated across all intersections and all neighboring streets. Last week, after Mountain View’s 4th of July’s Fireworks it took some guests over 2 hours to travel the mile and a half to the freeway. Mountain View’s police stated that over 25 thousand people attended the event and it seemed that the traffic cops were using walkie-talkies to communicate traffic issues. A coordinated, central response could have helped everyone get out of Shoreline faster. This is what Rio is trying to do around the World Cup games being held in the city and it makes sense.

And yet, there is a sense of unease at this use of location data.  I reached this article via Om Malik and he was critical about this use of data, calling it more insidious than the Facebook study. While this particular use of our data seems to be for the public good, it’s also clear that by opting to use an app users relinquish all control over what can end up being very personal and sensitive information. Is there a tipping point somewhere beyond which users will weigh the benefits they are getting from an app vs. the personal information they are divulging and decide not to use an app? Will this require apps to be clearer up front about how they are going to use user data vs hiding it in the Terms of Use under generic and vague legal terms? Do users even care how their information is being shared? Does aggregating information legitimize sharing it with third-parties?

I’m not sure about any of the answers to the above questions but I look forward to see how app developers, social networks, and tech companies deal with these issues in the near future.



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