Citizen scientist - how mobile phones can contribute to the public good

8/31/2009 | Christian Kreutz

Imagine we do not only use our mobile phones to make phones calls and SMS, but to contribute to science. How does that work? We can directly engage in micro-voluntarism or contribute valuable information without doing much more than carrying our mobile phone with us. Just as volunteers share computer processing power or look out for new galaxies, so can mobile phones become tools that collect valuable data.

Cairo traffic jam by tronics (Creative Commons License) on Flickr Cairo traffic jam by tronics on flickr (CC)

How does that work?

Newest mobiles phones have global position system (GPS), which shows on a map where you are at the moment. Google and TomTom have developed – independently from each other – an initiative to use location-based data to gather real time traffic information. It is quite simple and genial. GPS can determine whether you move fast or slow, so if you are probably in a car or walking.  So, if feedbacks are sent from an area of slow or non movement where the map indicates a highway, then it is much likely that there is a traffic jam.

The Swiss blog has a nice image to show how it works. (By the way a great resource!)

Traffic On GoogleMaps

Location services through all devices

By the way Google offers location position system also for non-GPS enabled phones and browsers (Firefox). How? They have a huge database of mobile tower locations. Computers have an IP address, and a wifi access point delivers another proximity. A bit scary if you think of privacy.

Mobile phones sensors

But that is just the beginning. Nokia has developed a mobile phone with sensors to gather results from your environment, such as noise level, pollution, personal health, weather monitoring, etc. Scientists from MIT call it “Reality Mining” and “provide insight into the dynamics of both individual and group behavior.” The Economist has an interesting article called Mobile Phones: Sensors and Sensitivity.

"Eric Paulos, a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, predicts the rise of “citizen scientists” able to measure and sample their surroundings wherever they go. He foresees amateur experts being driven by a new sense of volunteerism,... Dr Paulos has already equipped street sweepers in San Francisco and taxis in Accra, the capital of Ghana, with sensors to measure pollution levels, which he then used to create a map of each city’s environmental landscape. He plans to do the same with cyclists in Pittsburgh.“

This information can then be offered again for mobile phone users through applications with augmented reality, the latest hype around mobile phones. Tim Boucher has post, where he outlines a critical way augmented reality can lead to:


Privacy and surveillance

The flip side of the coin is privacy and potentially larger surveillance of citizens. Iphone owners already can get a taste of it. Pinch Media Spyware can be implemented by any Iphone-application-developer and can send your location and much more to the developer. Potentially, a programmer can develop profiles of movements. As long as a mobile is not really turned off, it continuously sends information and therefore can be located. In countries with authoritarian governments one can imagine, how easy it is to monitor exactly where dissidents are moving if they do not protect themselves.

Technology driven volunteerism?

Step by step mobile phones develop to a much broader instrument. It can help to valuable data for development such as another project described in the Economist article:  “A good example is the study of well-water contamination in Bangladesh conducted by Andrew Gelman, a statistician at Columbia University. His project combined readings from remote water-sensors with queries and data which villagers keyed into their mobile phones.“

In particular in development projects a sufficient data base is often not giving. Ushahidi has shown the potential for mobile crowdsourcing. Eric Paulos “foresees amateur experts being driven by a new sense of volunteerism, the 21st-century equivalent of cleaning up the neighbourhood park.” However, it has to secure that this information guarantee privacy and are a free public good.