A measurement device in your pocket

The recent news item that a US university had used mobiles to track the movement of thousands of individuals generated a lot of interest in the press. The study, reported in Nature, took anonymised data from a cellular operator as to the movements of their users and concluded from this that humans are creatures of habit, travelling the same routes to the same locations most of the time. This may not come as a great surprise to anyone who commutes to work each day and might not seem to be a significant advance for science but it does potentially give some indication of what more may be to come.

 

Nokia Eco-sensor concept

A Nokia Eco-Sensor Concept Phone (more)

 

Gathering data of most sorts – for example on the air quality throughout a country – can be very expensive. But costs can be much reduced, and the volume of data massively increased, by harnessing the daily movements of millions of mobile phones carried everywhere by most of us as part of our daily travels. The mobile is unique in being a device that either knows its own location, or which the network can locate, and which can input, process and transmit data. With our example of air quality measurements we could imagine clipping a small sensor onto the bottom of the mobile phones of volunteers. This might periodically sample the air quality and then the mobile might send a short data message back to the network. The network would then add the cell location to the message and pass this onto the agency conducting the trial. For very little cost, detailed information which was frequently being updated could be generated.

 

The list of possibilities is likely to be extensive. Ofcom is using around 50 mobile phones with Wi-Fi capabilities to test the Wi-Fi data rates available throughout London. Phones with microphones could test noise levels, deduce what TV programme their owner was watching to derive audience research data and much more. Phones docked in cars with vibration sensors could send back information on road quality and traffic speeds could be estimated from their position. The position of entrants out on a course for a cycling or running event could be tracked by the organisers to help them run the event smoothly. It seems likely that many specialists would like measurements of some sort in their specific areas of interest and many hobbies would benefit from more information.

 

This sort of application might raise privacy concerns and in some cases might require additional hardware or software to be added to the phone. But many users might be willing to agree to help if they thought that the information would benefit them – perhaps by leading to a better environment. In the near future you might leave your phone on for more reasons that just to receive incoming calls.

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