May 8, 2013
Cell phones are so many things now–computer, map, clock, calculator, camera, shopping device, concierge, and occasionally, a phone. But more than anything, that little device that never leaves your person is one amazingly prolific data engine.
Which is why last October, Verizon Wireless, the largest U.S, carrier with almost 100 million customers, launched a new division called Precision Market Insights. And why, at about the same time, Madrid-based Telefonica, one of the world’s largest mobile network providers, opened its own new business unit, Telefonica Dynamic Insights.
The point of these ventures is to mine, reconstitute and sell the enormous amount of data that phone companies gather about our behavior. Every time we make a mobile call or send a text message–which pings a cell tower–that info is recorded. So, with enough computer power, a company can draw pretty accurate conclusions about how and when people move through a city or a region. Or they can tell where people have come from to attend an event. As part of a recent case study, for example, Verizon was able to say that people with Baltimore area codes outnumbered those with San Francisco area codes by three to one inside the New Orleans Superdome for the Super Bowl in February.
In a world enamored of geolocation, this is digital gold. It’s one thing to know the demographic blend of a community, but to be able to find out how many people pass by a business and where they’re coming from, that adds a whole nother level of precision to target marketing.
Follow the crowd
But this data have value beyond companies zeroing in on potential customers. It’s being used for social science, even medical research. Recently IBM crunched numbers from 5 million phone users in the Ivory Coast in Africa and, by tracking movements of people through which cell towers they connected to, it was able to recommend 65 improvements to bus service in the city of Abidjan.
And computer scientists at the University of Birmingham in England have used cell phone data to fine tune analysis of how epidemics spread. Again, it’s about analyzing how people move around. Heretofore, much of what scientists knew about the spread of contagious diseases was based largely on guesswork. But now, thanks to so many pings from so many phones, there’s no need to guess.
It’s important to point out that no actual identities are connected to cell phone data. It all gets anonymized, meaning there shouldn’t be a way to track the data back to real people.
There shouldn’t be.
Leaving a trail
But a study published in Scientific Reports in March found that even anonymized data may not be so anonymous after all. A team of researchers from Louvain University in Belgium, Harvard and M.I.T. found that by using data from 15 months of phone use by 1.5 million people, together with a similar dataset from Foursquare, they could identify about 95 percent of the cell phones users with just four data points and 50 percent of them with just two data points. A data point is an individual’s approximate whereabouts at the approximate time they’re using their cell phone.
The reason that only four locations were necessary to identify most people is that we tend to move in consistent patterns. Just as everyone has unique fingerprints, everyone has unique daily travels. While someone wouldn’t necessarily be able to match the path of a mobile phone–known as a mobility trace–to a specific person, we make it much easier through geolocated tweets or location “check-ins,” such as when we use Foursquare.
“In the 1930s, it was shown that you need 12 points to uniquely identify and characterize a fingerprint,” the study’s lead author, Yves-Alexandre de Montijoye, told the BBC in a recent interview. “What we did here is the exact same thing, but with mobility traces. The way we move and the behavior is so unique that four points are enough to identify 95 percent of the people.”
“We think this data is more available than people think. When you share information, you look around and you feel like there are lots of people around–in a shopping center or a tourist place–so you feel this isn’t sensitive information.”
In other words, you feel anonymous. But are you really? De Montijoye said the point of his team’s research wasn’t to conjure up visions of Big Brother. He thinks there’s much good that can come from mining cell phone data, for businesses, for city planners, for scientists, for doctors. But he thinks it’s important to recognize that today’s technology makes true privacy very hard to keep.
The title of the study? “Unique in the Crowd.”
Here are other recent developments related to mobile phones and their data:
- Every picture tells your story: Scientists at Carnegie Mellon University’s Human Computer Interaction Center say their research of 100 smartphone apps found that about half of them raised privacy concerns. For instance, a photo-sharing app like Instagram provided information that allowed them to easily discover the location of the person who took the photo.
- Cabbies with cameras: In the Mexican city of Tuxtla Gutiérrez, taxi drivers have been provided with GPS-enabled cell phones and encouraged to send messages and photographs about accidents or potholes or broken streetlights.
- Follow that cell: Congress has started looking into the matter of how police use cell phone data to track down suspects. The key issue is whether they should be required to get a warrant first.
- Follow that cell II: Police in Italy have started using a data analysis tool called LogAnalysis that makes it especially easy to visualize the relationships among conspiring suspects based on their phone calls. In one particular case involving a series of robberies, the tool showed a flurry of phone activity among the suspects before and after the heists, but dead silence when the crimes were being committed.
Video bonus: If you’re at all paranoid about how much data can be gleaned from how you use your mobile phone, you may not want to watch this TED talk by Malte Spitz.
December 7, 2012
Yes, this is the time of year for getting together with family and friends and chowing down like you’re eating for all of them. It’s also a time when, during the height of shopping madness, we get a chance to reflect on just how clever we humans can be.
The truth is, though, not all of us got around to inventing something this year. Let the following list serve as inspiration for 2013.
1) Every move you make, every step you take, I’ll be tracking you: Sometimes you follow your heart, other times you listen to your wrist. So it goes with the Nike+ Fuelband, a slick little bracelet that tracks every step you take during the course of the day. But it doesn’t stop there. It tracks all of your physical activities and lets you know how many calories you’ve burned–whether you’re doing push-ups or lifting a cup of coffee. You can set a daily target and follow your progress and, if you hold up your end of the deal, you’re rewarded with a big flashing “Goal” on your wrist, which is way better than a corsage.
2) Break a lag: For those whose body clock is out of whack because of jet lag or working overnight shifts or just forgetting about the whole sleep thing, consider the Re-Timer. Invented by sleep researchers in Australia, the Re-Timer is a pair of glasses without the glass, but instead has LED lights that emit a soft-green glow on to your eyes. And that light is of a wavelength, according to the scientists, that has the effect of resetting your body clock so that your circadian rhythms get their beat back.
3) Although probably only your mother would agree to watch it: So if we expect bicyclists to stop at red lights, why shouldn’t they be able to look down at their smart phones while they’re waiting just like everyone in the cars around them. Now they can, thanks to Biologic’s Bike Mounts–there’s one for iPhones and one for Android phones. But this isn’t just some little attachment that connects to the handlebars. It pivots so your phone can shoot photos or video of your ride.
4) Why deal with the added stress of watering a plant: It’s safe to say that most people know how to water a plant but, strangely, so many are unable to pull it off on a regular basis. That’s why the self-watering flower pot from Click and Grow is such a godsend. It has sensors, batteries, a pump and a water reservoir that delivers water to the otherwise neglected plant as needed. If it needs a refill or the batteries run out, a light on the pot blinks. Think you can handle that?
5) Look, I’m just a cup but even I wouldn’t eat this: While we’re on the subject of products that remind us of how lame we can be, Hammacher Schlemmer is selling a measuring cup that talks. That’s right, it tells you how much of an ingredient you’ve added because why should you have to look for yourself?
6) Are your toys smarter than a fifth grader?: In today’s gaming world, just how cool could a set of little cubes be? In the case of Sifteo Cubes, very cool, because each cube has it own small LCD screen and a built-in acceleromenter and they interact with you when you shake or flip or tilt them. Or they’ll connect wirelessly to each other, exchanging info, like numbers and colors, so you can play puzzle games or take on number equations. They’re supposed to be for kids, but we know better.
7) But let’s draw the line at handkerchiefs: In most places these days, every day is casual Friday. But every man still has a few occasions when a team jersey just won’t do. And that’s why a business like Tie Society just might make it. Started in Washington, D.C. last year, it’s been described as the Netflix of ties. We’re talking rental ties. It works like this: For a monthly fee, starting at $11, a person can select ties and keep them until he wants to trade them in for a new set.
8) Does a man tweet in the woods?: Just because you’re out in the woods doesn’t mean you need to act crazy and let your gadgets lose power. The Biolite CampStove not only allows you to avoid lugging cannisters for cooking–it burns twigs and pine cones and anything else combustible you find lying around–but it also converts the heat from your fire to electricity that can recharge your stuff.
9) Rock faster, grandpa, I need to shop: Sure, it’s relaxing, but killing time in a rocking chair can seem oh-so-unproductive. No more. Zurich-based Micasa Laboratories has come up with a way for grandpa to contribute to household peace by doing his part to keep the old iPad charged. The iRock looks like a rocking chair and works like a rocking chair, but it’s also a charging station. The back-and-forth motion actually creates enough power to juice up an iPad. Okay, so it costs $1,300, but we’re talking Christmas miracle here.
10) Video bonus: Ready for liftoff? Maybe this is the year you’ll finally get that jet pack you’ve been waiting for your whole life. Neiman Marcus can get you the the Jetlev R200 for under $100,000. Such a deal.
December 4, 2012
It was a moment that would have brought a smile–a sardonic one, of course–to the face of Bones McCoy.
Last week, the California-based firm Scanadu announced that by the end of next year, it will begin selling a device called Scout. The little gadget, which fits in the palm of your hand, will, in conjunction with your smartphone, be able to tell you your temperature, blood pressure, heart rate, breathing rate and the level of oxygen in your blood–all within 10 to 15 seconds.
In other words, it will be the closest thing we’ll have to that bulky but nifty tricorder that McCoy wielded so deftly as chief medical officer on the Starship Enterprise back in the glory days of Star Trek. Which is the point, because Scanadu is one of the competitors for the $10 million award in Qualcomm’s Tricorder X Prize.
Scanadu is already making comparisons to the innovation of the family thermometer back in the 19th century, an invention that gave people the opportunity to gather health data at home. They may be right about that.
Most doctors would certainly agree that this is a good thing, in that it will make it ridiculously easy for a person to check his vitals every day. In theory it would, like the thermometer, let people know if they have a health problem without attempting to explain what it might be.
But then there’s this tagline on the Scanadu website: “Sending your smartphone to med school.” Sure, it’s meant as a clever, pithy pitch. But it also raises a notion that makes a lot of people in the medical community very uneasy about where this boom in health and medical apps is headed.
When does gathering data slide into making diagnoses or even promising cures? And if it does, who’s going to ensure that any of this is based on real science?
Apparently, a lot of what’s out there now isn’t. Last month, the New England Center for Investigative Reporting released the results of its analysis of 1,500 health mobile apps that cost money. It’s not a pretty picture.
The reporters found that more than 20 percent of the apps they reviewed claim to treat or cure medical problems. Of those 331 therapeutic apps, nearly 43 percent relied on cellphone sound for treatments. Others promised results using a cellphone’s light and a few pitched the power of phone vibrations. Scientists told the journalists that none of the above could possibly treat the conditions in question.
There’s no longer an app for that
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is expected to soon announce how it plans to regulate medical apps. It’s not likely to worry about the thousands of health apps that allow people to track their workouts or their daily calorie counts or how they slept. But it will look closely at apps that are promoted as a way to diagnose or treat a disease or condition.
By its latest count, there are now almost 18,000 health and fitness apps and more than 14,500 medical apps. As cautious as the feds have been has been about getting into the business of regulating software, they haven’t been able to ignore a few of the more egregious examples of mobile app magical thinking.
Last year the Federal Trade Commission banned the sale of two apps that promised to cure acne.
And that’s why they call it a smartphone
Here are other recent examples of mobile tech transforming the field of medicine:
- Is it the blue pill or the red pill?: Microsoft has jumped into the medical apps business by joining with NextGen Healthcare to develop, for Windows 8, an app called NextGen MedicineCabinet. It will allow people to create and store a detailed digital record of their prescription medications and be able to share it with doctors and hospitals when necessary. It also will let health care providers identify potentially harmful drug interactions.
- Will it tell you if you’re watching “Cops” too much? California startup Lark Technologies has launched a product it calls larklife–wristbands with sensors that work with an iPhone to track your daytime activities–calories burned, distance traveled, steps taken, food eaten–and your nighttime–how you slept. Then it provides you with tips during the day based on what your data says. For instance, if you don’t sleep as much as usual, it might point out that it’s a good idea to eat breakfast. Or it might congratulate you for a big fitness accomplishment, such as walking 1,000 steps in one day.
- Because it’s so hard to show surgery on stick people: A company called Visible Health has created a product called DrawMD, a series of free iPad apps that allow surgeons to explain surgical processes to their patients. Instead of scratching out a crude pencil sketch on a notepad, doctors can use digital anatomical images in the apps, which they can sketch or type on to illustrate a medical procedure.
- Is there a doctor in the house? HealthTap, with a large searchable doctor directory–complete with ratings, peer-reviews, and the ability to book appointments–plus a popular health Q&A feature, has been a player in the medical apps world for awhile. And last week it got even bigger, buying Avvo Health, another medical Q&A service with a network of physicians. That expands HealthTap’s Medical Expert Network to more than 30,000 American doctors and dentists.
- But does it send an alert when he needs a massage? It’s about time. Last week Japanese tech giant Fujitsu announced the launch of Wandant, a device that attaches to a dog’s collar and keeps track of how many steps it takes during a day. It also measures the dog’s temperature and comes with an online diary where owners can record what their furry overlord has eaten, what it weighs and the condition of its stool.
Video bonus: Yes, there are a lot of fitness videos out there, but few make running as much fun as Zombies, Run! Hear from the diabolical minds who created it.
More from Smithsonian.com:
September 13, 2012
A new movie premieres in New York today and chances are none of you will ever see it.
It’s a short film titled “DVF Through Glass” and it’s video that models working for designer Diane von Furstenberg shot during New York’s Fashion Week using Google glasses they were wearing. (Google prefers to call its augmented reality devices Google Glass to distinguish them from actual glasses because they contain no glass. Got that?)
They’re the frames that caused such a stir last spring when Google unveiled them, wearable computers that can shoot videos and photos and tell you where the nearest Starbucks can be found. By wearing them as they strolled down the runway, von Furstenberg’s models became high-tech accessorized. For its part, Google managed to de-geek its invention a tad by putting it on fashion models, not to mention grab some New York media exposure before all the spotlights swung over to Apple’s iPhone 5.
As Spencer Ante pointed out in The Wall Street Journal this week, Google Glass remains a work in progress, with much of its software unfinished. It won’t be available until next year and, at $1,500 a pop, will likely be a novelty bauble for awhile.
Still, it’s already the best known of what are being called “appcessories,” wearable devices that work with smart phones. Earlier this week, a potential challenger, glasses developed by a British firm called The Technology Partnership (TTP), made its debut. Unlike Google Glass, the TTP device looks like regular glasses and beams an image directly into the wearer’s eye, instead of making him or her shift focus to a tiny screen attached to the frame.
Then there’s the Pebble, a smart watch that tells you the time, but also connects wirelessly with your iPhone or Android phone to show you who’s calling, display text messages, Facebook or email alerts and let you control, from your wrist, what’s playing on your smartphone. Its inventors had hoped to raise $100,000 on Kickstarter, with the goal of selling 1,000 watches. Instead they raised $10 million and already have orders for 85,000 watches–so many that they’ve had to push back the first shipment, which was supposed to start this month.
It’s that kind of response that has a lot of people predicting that wearable computing is the next big wave, the thing that will free us from what’s been called the “black mirror” of our smartphone screens. Your phone may still be the powerful little computer you carry around, but it may never have to leave your pocket.
Or you can do without the phone altogether. London digital art director Dhani Sutanto created an enamel ring with the electronics of a transit card implanted in it. One swipe of his ring and he can ride the London subway.
His goal, he says, is to design “interactions without buttons,” to link physical items–such as a ring–to your virtual identity and preferences.
“Imagine a blind person using an ATM and fumbling with the buttons or touch screen,” Sutanto recently told an interviewer. “If they had wearable technology in the form of a ring, for example, they could approach and just touch it. The ATM would say, “Welcome, Mr. Smith. Here’s your £20.”
Turn me on
Google wasn’t alone in infusing tech in Fashion Week. Microsoft was there, too, presenting a dress that tweeted. Okay, the dress, made of paper, didn’t actually tweet, but the person wearing it could, using a keyboard on its bodice, decorate the bottom of the dress with Twitter banter.
My guess–and hope–is that this won’t catch on and we will never have to live in a world where people wear their tweets on their sleeves. But another breakthrough in wearable tech a few months ago could dramatically change what we expect our clothes to do for us.
Scientists at the University of Exeter in the U.K. have created a substance that can be woven into a fabric to produce the lightest, most transparent and flexible material ever made that conducts electricity. One day, they say, we could be walking around in clothing that carries a charge.
To me, this would not seem a good fashion choice if there’s even a chance of thunder and lightning. But the researchers at Exeter have happier thoughts. They talk of shirts that turn into MP3 players and of charging your phone with your pants.
Which could give new meaning to “wardrobe malfunction.”
Here are other recent developments in wearable tech:
- You’ve got the power: A British professor is trying to produce clothing made with materials capable of generating electricity from either the warmth or movement of the human body.
- If you must talk in public, do it with style: Nothing stylish about walking around wearing a Bluetooth headset. But now, at least for women, there are other options, such as a pendant that works like a headset, but looks like a necklace.
- One device to rule them all: Scientists at Dartmouth are developing a device worn like a bracelet that would authenticate a user’s identity and connect any other medical devices he or she has had implanted or is wearing.
- Mom, is that you?: A device called LUMOback that you wear like a belt around your back vibrates to let you know if you’re slouching.
- News from the front: Adidas now has a sports bra that both tracks your heartbeat and tells you how many calories you’ve burned.
- Are you going to answer your phone or what?: Not quite sure what to make of this one, but Nokia has filed for a patent for a magnetic vibrating tattoo. The idea is that it would work like a silent ringtone, setting off a different vibration depending on who’s calling or if your phone battery is running low.
Video bonus: See how Microsoft’s Kinect is being used to let you try on clothes without having to take any off.
More from Smithsonian.com
September 10, 2012
This Wednesday, Apple, with great fanfare, will present the iPhone 5 to the world. Much will be written about its 4G speed, taller screen, longer battery life, thinner shape and two-tone look.
And much will be said about whether or not it is Steve Jobs’ final legacy. Was he actually weighing in on the new model until his dying day? Or is that story being floated to ensure the iPhone 5 cult classic status in the devout Apple community?
No doubt this will be the big tech innovation story of the month–although, as MIT’s Technology Review pointed out last week, we’ve reached the point with smartphones that improvements are more incremental than revolutionary. Now all the talk is about how big the screen is, not that you can control your phone simply by touching it.
Now that’s a good idea
But instead of joining the iPhone chorus, how about a little counter-programming. What follows are 10 recent inventions, none of which is likely to get much attention this week. But that doesn’t make them any less inspired.
1) All we are saying, is give bats a chance: One of the raps on wind turbines is that they kill thousands of birds and bats every year. But an 89-year-old retired engineer in California named Raymond Green has taken it upon himself to create a device that may lead to a solution. His invention, which he calls “Catching Wind Power,” is basically a large drum in which all the movable parts, including the killer blades, are contained. That would make them considerably less dangerous for flying creatures, and also, Green claims, quieter than what’s out there now.
2) Forgetting something?: As I noted in a recent post, hospitals are a bacterial war zone where one of the key weapons of the good guys is frequent hand-washing. But research suggests that health care workers wash their hands half as often as they should. Now an Israeli company named Hyginex is producing wristbands that wirelessly remind those wearing them that to scrub down. Sensors in soap dispensers track the movements of doctors and nurses, and if they approach a patient without washing their hands, their wristbands light up and vibrate.
3) The roads less traveled: Yes, there are apps out there that alert you to backups and accidents, but a group of German students has ratcheted traffic apps up a notch. Their Greenway app, now being tested by drivers in Munich, uses algorithms to predict where and how traffic will flow and gives its users directions to “traffic-optimized” routes. It also closely monitors the alternate routes and scales back its recommendations if they’re getting crowded. Greenway’s creators claim their directions, on average, get drivers to their destinations twice as fast as on their usual routes.
4) Say good-bye to helmet hair: It’s still Fashion Week in New York, so allow me to introduce the Hovding bike helmet. It’s the brainstorm of two Swedish women who have managed to do the seemingly impossible–merge fashion and bike safety. Their helmet actually looks like a collar, but if it senses impact, it inflates like an airbag around the rider’s head.
5) Go ahead, walk all over me: Scientists at the University of Manchester in the UK have developed a smart carpet. That’s right, a smart carpet. The rug’s backing contains optical fibers that distort when they’re stepped on and send a signal to a computer. That’s impressive, but to what end? First, it can, in the case of elderly person, determine if someone has fallen. It can also serve as an intruder alert if it detects unfamiliar footsteps near a window. Its inventors think it even has potential as a physical therapy aid able to predict mobility problems if it notices changes in a person’s walk.
6) Got juice?: If you drive a lot and need to keep your iPad charged, do I have a gadget for you. It’s a device that turns your standard car cup holder into a charging station, allowing you to juice up your tablet and your smartphone at the same time.
7) You’ve been drinking. I can see it in your nose: Two Greek computer scientists say that by using algorithms and thermal imaging, they’ve devised a way to spot inebriated people in public. Their method, in which they combine an infrared image with algorithms related to what happens to blood vessels in a person’s nose when they have too much to drink, would allow police to identify a drunk on more info than that they’re acting like one.
8) Flashlights are so over: You can have the biggest, shiniest belt buckle ever and it won’t help you much on a walk in the dark. But the Walker’s Path Illuminating Belt is custom-made for such occasions. It’s a hands-free LED safety light that wraps around your waist and can be adjusted to serve as either a wide-angle floodlight or a narrowly-focused spotlight.
9) Why shouldn’t bikes have growth spurts?: It’s one thing for your kids to grow out of their clothes and shoes, but you move into a whole other price range when they keep getting too big for their bikes. The Spanish bicycle designer Orbea has taken on the challenge, creating a bike that grows with a kid, appropriately called the Grow bike. The crossbar, stem and seats all can be lengthened, and since other components also are designed to last longer, Grow bikes, says Orbea, need to be replaced every five to seven years instead of every two to three.
10) Video bonus: Sugar kills: As much practice as we get, most of us just aren’t very good at knocking flies out of the air. But soon BugASalt could change all that–when flies comes buzzin’, it’s just the weapon for the job. It’s a toy gun that acts like a shotgun firing just enough salt to bring down a fly. Seeing is believing.
More from Smithsonian.com