Where Einstein Meets Edison

The Power of Personal Mobility Tracking

The Power of Personal Mobility Tracking

Nov 23, 2010

Some people have a problem with privacy but I am not one of them.  It might be my shameless penchant for publicity but what it does mean is that I am fearless about trying new technologies that invade my personal space. 

To put my anti-privacy fervor to the test, I decided to do something everyday humans are only starting to be able to do: track my personal mobility.  With the help of Google Latitute on my Android device and a $60/month data plan from T-Mobile, I could track precisely where I went at all hours of the day provided there was access to a cell phone tower, GPS, or Wi-Fi signal.  Out of a sample set of 400 data points in a two day period, only 5 were clearly false positives.  Part of those errors in readings may be due to Google’s use of triangulation of cell phone towers to pinpoint location in the absence of GPS, a technique that has been known to be less accurate.  Google also incorporates Wi-Fi-based location technologies when available, a technique known to be more accurate than GPS but which is controversial because it requires an active database of available Wi-Fi signals, a requirement that landed Google in some controversy.

For the most part,  I got a pretty accurate reading not only where I was at all hours of the day but Google also calculated my home and school location, the time I spent at each place and the distance I traveled during the week (52 miles in the 36 hour period above).  For me, the data was enlightening despite my apparent knowledge of my own whereabouts.  

Can I really run there?

In Reinventing the Automobile: Personal Urban Mobility for the 21st Century, Bill Mitchell reveals that short city trips often take longer in an automobile than on foot.  Yet many people still drive despite spending half of their gasoline on looking for parking.  Transportation engineers will call it logic bubbles, or illogical bubbles, that people get caught in when making decisions that do not always seem rational from the outside. 

Something else might be missing though.  Aside from avid runners and cyclists, most of us don’t know how much time and effort it takes to self-power our way to our ultimate destination.  I knew I didn’t — until I started tracking myself on some runs around the Charles River. 

While I knew that it took on average 20 minutes to walk a mile and 10 minutes to run one, I wanted to know more.  Could I run 5 miles without dying?  How much would my pace decline with increasing mileage?  Why did some runs feel awful and others feel great?  How does my performance change in the winter chill or the summer heat?

This new information on my own horsepower inspired me first to fine tune my engine and second, expand my mental map of what I believed was accessible.  Instead of looking for transit options when getting to a destination, I would first quickly assess if the destination was within my personal human-powered range and the time it would take me to get there. 

Where have I conquered this week?

When I was a management consultant, one of the most powerful slides that we could present to a CEO was simply a map of his or her store locations.  Even if that CEO knew the ins and outs of every one of his or her 500 locations, seeing it all laid out on a map touched something deep inside.  Perhaps it’s that unique desire to build an empire and conquer the world like Genghis Khan that reverberates with CEOs.  Perhaps it’s a more universal desire to measure our life by the places that we’ve been.

While I admittedly have spent a lot of time coloring my own map of places that I’ve been, the precision offered by personal mobility tracking present new opportunities that might change the way humans move.  Unlike albatrosses, bumblebees, deer and monkeys who exhibit mobility patterns that follow a random walk, Gonzalez, Hidalgo, and Barabasi (2008) discovered that humans follow simple reproducible mobility patterns, returning frequently to a few locations such as home or work. 

With my mobility maps, I could soon track not only the neighborhoods I had never visited but also the streets that I rarely used in my own neighborhood.  Complemented by the power of online recommendation engines like Yelp to help me discover the best places for late-night pizza, I suddenly had a new mode of discovery: walking down streets that my location history showed I never traversed.       

The more strange streets I traversed, the more I could color my map, leading to a strange sense of accomplishment, similar I bet to the one that some Americans get when they try to visit all 50 States.  In our increasingly virtual existence of location-independent online social groups, mobility tracking helped inspire me to reconnect with the people and places physically around me.    

Coordinating the actions of many

While I have greatly benefited from understanding my own mobility, some of the real potential in the data comes when it is shared with the world.  Imagine if everyone (or at least a sufficient quorum) was willing to track themselves and share their locations even anonymously, what could happen?

For a start, transportation planners would be just as smart as mold.  Instead of having a few individuals attempting to manage a million actors moving independently through a system, a million actors could move in a much more coordinated manner.  Drivers could more quickly identify traffic jams on the roadways and take alternate routes to avoid them.  Businesses could find logjams where people are sitting in their cars and target products to those areas.  Taxis could more quickly find where people were heading and buses could more quickly be supplemented and subtracted as necessary.  Families could see how many people were heading to a carnival or a sporting event and then decide whether or not to go. 

As Eric Morris writes:

Organic development can complement the planning efforts of a central intelligence. Planners see the big picture, but may have limited information about the small details. Organic planning accumulates the collective wisdom of myriad individuals who each know only a very small part of the picture, but know their part very well.

How to get more people to buy in?

Despite the power of this data, with all the focus on user privacy these days, not everyone is going to be a fan of personal mobility tracking.  Fears about companies owning information about you and the creepiness being tracked elicits is enough of an adoption barrier to most people right now.  I do think these barriers can be overcome if the value of the data can be proven. 

A few years ago when we were at the height of our boldness at Google, an engineer proposed that we give away mobile phones and service for free in exchange for your location information so that we could provide the best traffic information in the world on our maps.  That’s a pretty good deal I think — one that I think few people would turn down.