The Smart UK project backed by UK Trade and Investment (a government body that promotes UK businesses) recently held an event to present its shortlist of companies and products to highlight UK innovations in mobile technologies. This is part of the build up to the mobile telecom industry’s largest event, Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona later in February.
Smart UK attracted dozens of entrants, which had been whittled down to a shortlist of nineteen with an overall winner to be announced during MWC. Among the entries were technologies aimed at making mobile devices easier to use, ultra low-cost tablets and systems for safeguarding mobile networks’ power requirements. There were also the usual set of ‘mobile will enhance your life’ consumer apps offering mobile extensions to existing consumer concepts or offering new and innovative business models.
However in all fast moving technical marketplaces there are always a few ideas that set off down one path only to discover there are unexpected consequences that lead in another direction. One such on display at SmartUK was Carbon Hero’s CarbonDiem.
The concept is straightforward; use the mobile device to capture the owner’s movements and calculate their carbon footprint. Of course the detail is a little more complex, as it depends on mode of transport, so using a mix of subscriber supplied information – e.g. what type of car they own – and what speed they covered the distance, the mode of transport can be worked out and a more accurate indication of carbon footprint calculated.
All well and good, and this becomes an interesting way for individuals to measure their carbon emissions when travelling, and for organisations to be able to aggregate employee travel information and then report more accurately on their environmental credentials. So far this is mainly a worthy tool for bringing about positive awareness of the total carbon impact and the affect of different forms of travel.
However the unexpected consequence is that when all the data is combined, say for a region, city or transport hub, the aggregated information provides something else – an accurate survey of the travel interactions of individuals, waking, cycling, driving and travelling on public transport in a given area. Now wouldn’t this be interesting for those planning policies and strategies for integrated transport systems?
Today most of the information collected around public transport in the UK is via surveys. While this can provide statistically valid information, it does rely on the accuracy and memories of travellers. Capturing the precise reality of travel, with accurate timing and volumes of users would provide a wealth of useful information for planning travel resources and reducing congestion and overcrowding headaches. That would have significant benefits for individuals too.
In many respects while individual data points are interesting and can affect personal choices and decision making, the really big benefits and value comes from the combination of masses of information.
In this way both Google and Facebook have huge market value not simply because they can target advertising and services at individuals based on their specific actions, likes or circumstances, but because they have so much aggregated information that they can see large and significant trends. Or at least they could, assuming they have the will and appropriate tools to dissect and analyse to generate the right ‘slice’ of the bigger picture.
Capturing this sort of personal and behavioural information will always be fraught with privacy concerns, not only regarding what an information gatherer will do with the data, or with whom they will share it, but also regarding whether it might be lost, stolen or hacked. A quick glance across the media will show these fears are well founded, no matter how large, powerful or apparently trustworthy the organisation.
CarbonDiem gets round this by exploiting the power of the smartphone and pre-processing the most sensitive information before it leaves the device to be centrally aggregated. So for example an application that seeks to report a carbon footprint will calculate journey modes, times and distances on the phone before transmitting them, anonymised without any info the could identify the individual or their device, to a database on a server in the cloud, when it can the safely be shared with interested third parties.
This separation of activities between end device and core system is different to most online internet user tracking by retailers, search engines, carriers and social media sites. These typically use ‘cookies’ stored on the personal computer and keep far more data in centralised servers where it can be later processed, mainly for targeted advertising.
Another difference between different forms of online access is that the mobile devices are far more personal and context aware than desktop computers. They are carried and used pretty much everywhere and by a very large cross section of users.
The information captured could be used for personal tracking and targeted individual advertising in the dark future portrayed in the Tom Cruise film, ‘Minority Report’, but there are plenty of more beneficial uses for such data when aggregated providing personal privacy is suitably protected – travel and carbon tracking being a particularly interesting one. It is great to see the UK has such a good diversity of mobile innovation being showcased at Mobile World Congress.