Are You a “Human Sensor Platform”?

It started with Web-based social media. We became enamored with sharing and connecting via Facebook, Twitter, even LinkedIn. Those platforms and others migrated as apps to our now-indispensable smartphones and tablets. This was the beginning of us becoming “sensor platforms” as the data being culled from the websites and apps became ever more sophisticated and deep.

And we’ve all done so willingly, even enthusiastically, in exchange for the reach and convenience that these systems provide us. The evolution is continuing with two key technological trends: the addition of physical-world sensors to smartphones, and specifically designed sensing devices, or wearables.

Your phone has become a rich sensing device

It turns out that newer smartphone models, such as those from Apple and Samsung, are bristling with sensors that are capable of capturing much information from you and the surrounding world. These include sensors for multi-axis movement and positioning, fingerprint/touch and, soon, air temperature, barometric pressure and more. But even without these, virtually all phones can provide geolocation, audio and imagery — all forms of sensing.

For example, capturing the quantity of phones present in a given neighborhood can be used as a proxy for the number of people there. There are even crowdsourced data mining initiatives that use the cameras in phones to discern traffic movements.

This is only the beginning. As the instrumentation embedded within our personal communications devices becomes more and more powerful, coupled with improvements in location accuracy, phones-as-sensors will take on an increasingly important role as data sources for a variety of consumer and commercial applications.

March of the wearables

At the recent Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, so many companies came to present their offerings in the wearables category that an entire hall was filled with them. Frankly, it was difficult to discern what differentiated one from another; the current crop are all similar in monitoring pulse rates, body temperature and sometimes a few extras. They all offer a means to get the data into your laptop, onto your phone and/or posted in cloud databases.

The takeaway is that these, and more advanced devices such as the Apple Watch, are gaining in popularity and bring an enhanced set of sensing capabilities to individuals. The fascinating attribute of this is that, much as with Facebook and smartphones, the data being generated by wearables can be mined for applications that have nothing to do with their original intent.

Applying data collected for one purpose to another usage is typically referred to as cross-correlative analysis. My favorite example is the measuring of an earthquake’s intensity by analyzing the jump in heart rates collected by FitBit and Jawbone wearables, mapped via geolocation. In essence humans — for a moment in time — became seismographs.

An idea along these lines would be to use footfalls over time (i.e., walking pace) as a means to determine how rapidly people are moving around malls, train stations, airports and even theme parks. Many of the latest fitness trackers, and smart watches, will make this feasable. The more of these devices that we add to our ensemble, coupled with new features of our smartphones, the larger the range of cross-correlative uses for the data.

If I’m a sensor platform, do I own my data?

A looming issue facing the Internet of Things surrounds the ownership of sensor data. It’s a very big deal, and potentially has implications for business, government policies and individual rights.

In the realm of mobile devices and social media, plus most Web-based systems that collect rich user data, the de facto mode is that we accept a user agreement which essentially barters our usage of the product or service for data collected on us. The value of such data has become staggering, and mobile device data is boosting it exponentially. Bring in physical-world sensors, and yet more data is being generated, and there again, we’re happy to trade the data for convenience and usability.

Therefore, in the current modus operandi of the industry, we are giving away our data. Some challenges to this notion are popping up around the world, most notably in Europe. It remains to be seen how this will shake out, but in the meantime, particularly in the U.S., our personal data, regardless of how generated, is being utilized and often vended by the companies who sell or offer us the products or services that generate it.

This is just the beginning

As sensors become smaller and mobile processors more powerful, coupled with advances in wireless technology spurred by 5G, we’ll doubtless see the amount of data being generated from our bodies, our movements and the environment growing incessantly. Measurement of attributes such as perspiration, breathing, digestion, exposure to air pollution and viruses, hydration and more are all coming.

As machine learning, particularly as applied to cross-correlative analysis, gets smarter and broader and taps into the burgeoning trove of physical-world data and other sources, improvements in healthcare, transportation, leisure activity and even supply chain management will result.

So we’re sensor platforms; what of it?

It’s worth keeping an eye on the regulatory matters pertaining to all of this, in particular the usage of data generated by individuals, and/or devices carried or worn by individuals. For the time being, the benefits of the devices and apps that are streaming data from one’s person are outweighing concerns over privacy, ownership, or even getting paid. That could change in the future, and possibly will be specific to the city, state or country one calls home.

On the business front, most companies haven’t yet tapped into this mega-source of new information. Depending upon what your organization offers as a product or service, this physical-world data could be a powerful new resource, leading to improvements in personalized marketing, public safety, logistics, recreation, transportation and the workplace itself. Fitness trackers and other wearables, increasingly sensor-laden smartphones and the power of big data analytics are sure to change the landscape forever.

With all of us becoming sensor platforms, plentiful opportunities are — well — within arm’s reach.

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