Perhaps more important, we’re also comfortable being passive data sources — sharing our whereabouts, for instance, without knowing we’re doing so. The most ubiquitous example is the traffic layer on Google Maps. This tool allows users to overlay real-time information about the traffic volumes on major roads. It works by passively — and anonymously — collecting GPS and motion data from phones running the Android operating system, enabled by those terms and conditions people agree to when first starting up service. The result is surprisingly accurate and can help you avoid a gnarly traffic jam en route to work. Yet passive data collection can do so much more.
Drivers in Boston are employing the GPS and accelerometer sensors in their smartphones to detect and map potholes throughout the city — and doing so with hardly any explicit human action. The application is called Street Bump, and when installed and run on phones in traveling vehicles, it automatically monitors jolts and bumps to identify possible problem areas on city streets. Once the app is running, the driver does nothing. The phone is the one paying attention, mapping the location of likely potholes and road bumps, and sharing that data with the city.
Moreover, as the phones we carry become mobile data collection units, they’ll provide not only commonplace information — like potholes and traffic jams — but also data that could save lives. Consider the mobile air-quality monitoring systems that researchers at the University of California, San Diego are developing. Once the technology is scaled down to fit inside a cellphone, it could provide localized reports on air quality to help people suffering from allergies and asthma.
Sometimes we’ll have to do very little to share this information with the world. Other times we’ll eagerly go out of our way to make it available, as users do with Hollaback, a smartphone app for tracking street harassment. Hollaback lets people instantly submit geotagged reports of harassment, with maps and a description and even photos of the perpetrators. Now, when a leering pervert catcalls a woman passing by, she can quickly turn around, snap a photo, and within half a minute post the man’s mugshot and misdeed online for the world to see.
The cameras, gyroscopes, microphones and accelerometers in phones are documenting the wonders and horrors of urban life while also parsing data to paint a vivid picture of the city we couldn’t otherwise see. The possibilities abound. A sensor in your phone could detect elevated carbon monoxide readings at a friend’s house you are visiting and automatically notify the fire department. An app might warn you when you’re driving into an area that has had a spate of carjackings and advise a safer route, or detect the sound of gunshots in your neighborhood and alert authorities.
Next page: The Internet of Things