Living In The Data Cloud

A great deal is written about the privacy issues raised by our increasingly electronic lives, but there is also a great deal of information that I would be happy to share via the internet, it’s just not the sort of data that’s of any obvious use. Many gadgets around us collect data on their environment continuously and if we’re prepared to share this data, anonymously, there could be very interesting consequences.

This thought occurred to me after reading about a project that uses hard disks to detect earthquakes. The project relies upon the fact that hard disks have vibration sensors so they can shut themselves down when they experience forces that might otherwise damage them. Individually, a hard disk’s vibration sensor isn’t sensitive enough to detect earthquakes, but if they are connected to a network of computers that all share vibration information the collected data can be used to locate the epicentre of an earthquake, and even possibly give warning that an earthquake or tidal wave is coming.

In the future a similar idea might allow the detection of cosmic rays, because of the way they affect memory in computers. It’s always hard to know how the public will react to privacy issues, as Facebook demonstrated when they tried to introduce their ‘Beacon’ advertising plan. I would be happy to share any information my computer gathered on earthquakes or cosmic rays: in both cases the information would go to a worthy cause (saving lives and science) and no useful personal information is given away.

Mobile phones with GPS may soon become similar sources of data — Nokia has a speculative design for a mobile phone that would gather information about the weather, and a phone with a radiation detector that could be used to alert authorities to possible terrorist activity has also been mooted.

Another example of this is a sat-nav system which transmits information about vehicle speed back to a central point. If several cars are seen to decelerate in a particular place then it’s likely that there’s a traffic jam and the system can then relay this information back to drivers so they can avoid it.

Of course there is a correlation between how revealing information is and how likely people are to share it, so this kind of data sharing is always going to be limited in scope. My decision to share data is also affected by how it will be used. For example, I wouldn’t be prepared to share anything that might be commercially useful unless I received money for it, and event then I’d be reluctant.

This will probably limit the application of the concept of gathering large amounts of data from personal electronics to science but some more frivolous applications come to mind.

For example, it’s possible to detect a person’s mood by using software to analyse the tone of their voice. If mood data (gathered during phone calls) were transmitted to a central mood processing centre it would be literally possible to “capture the mood of the nation”. To get a statistically relevant model only a tiny fraction of phone users would have to agree to have their mood anonymously reported.

Obviously most of the time, and in most places, it would be very random. However, it might be possible to see a small community that had suffered something tragic, or to map fear in an area of a city that had experienced a crime wave. Politicians might watch the national mood graph to see how announcements went down; economists might take the national mood into consideration making predictions.

I’m sure there are many other potential uses that are too bizarre to even imagine, and I’m not sure I want to be able to refer to a map of the mood of the nation — it would certainly be an interesting experiment though.

As gadgets with environmental sensors become more and more ubiquitous and a greater number of devices have access to the internet, aggregating this kind of anonymous personal data will become increasingly easy. It’s never very easy to know how people will feel about sharing information; still it may not take many people to get a statistically relevant sample size.

One day we might get used to our kettles reporting levels of chlorination to the Environment Agency or the hoover sharing data on airborne bacteria. This kind anonymous data sharing has many obvious benefits – but experience suggests that the ready availability of data frequently comes with unexpectedly intrusive repercussions.

Jimmy Tidey

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