Saturday, March 26, 2011

Mapping Location Through Cell Phone Tracking

A friend sent along an interesting New York Times article about German privacy advocate Malte Spitz's efforts to obtain the location information collected through his cellphone from Deutsche Telekom. After a court battle, he obtained the records collected via his 'handy' (love that nickname), and was given an astonishing spreadsheet, containing each of the 35,831 pieces of information that had been collected about him over the previous six months. That's more than one piece of data every 7 and a half minutes. As a privacy activist and member of Germany's Green Party, he chose to make his findings public, via Google Document, in an effort to show the extent of the data collected.

Working with Spitz, the German newspaper Die Zeit created an incredible interactive map of the data. In addition to mapping the location information provided by Deutsche Telekom, Die Zeit integrated Spitz calling and SMS texting use, and "augmented" that information Spitz's tweets, blog postings, and public appearances to create a full-bodied, interactive portrait of one man's life over the course of six months.

A screenshot from the interactive map of six months of Spitz's life. (via Die Zeit Online)

The resulting infographic is utterly fascinating. While its creator surely intended for it to be a frightening reflection of just how much personal data is collected by others, I'm more interested by the possibilities it opens then the fearsome Big Brother it reveals. Spitz's movements are thoroughly plotted across the map, and reveal information not just about location, bu about movement, and the relative speed of different modes of travel. Tied in with his blogging, tweets, and cell phone use, the data creates a remarkable chronicle of thoughts and activities, along with their ties to place. What was one looking at when a great idea struck and was tweeted? Where was one standing when they took a photo and posted it to Facebook?

I understand and appreciate the desire for privacy, and think that those who wish to remain anonymous should be able to, but my first reaction when I read this article was, "I wish I could get my records." The ties between space, time, and human activities fascinates me - for instance, I have been manually recording all of my movements through Philadelphia by foot and bicycle since October of last year, mostly as a way of keeping a diary through maps. Even now I can look back at the maps I've accumulated and recall the responsibilities and activities, both mundane and extraordinary, that propelled me around the city on any given day. I would love to be able to tie that movement data so closely to the other actions I took.

While the possibility of the misuse of data such as that found by Herr Spitz is plausible, and its abuse is conceivable, its power is undeniable. This data, severed of its links to individuals offers a wealth of information with already proposed data mining concepts, like traffic management. Without safeguards to protect anonymity, such tracking can be ethically murky, but the ability of this information to transform the way that we see cities and movement. Still, even severed from a specific identity, it's not too hard to figure out whose map is whose. A brief glimpse at the maps I've made clearly shows where I live, along with regular trips that I make, for instance to collect rents from my rental property and deposit them at the bank on the first of every month. Such maps of movement are incredibly legible and revealing - perhaps this is why they fascinate me so.

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