Quantified Self – Location Tracking

This post is part of my liveblogged account of a conference. Two disclaimers: Liveblogging is hard, and I often get things wrong. If I did, please feel free to correct me via email or in the comments and I’ll make changes when appropriate. Second, the opinions expressed in these sorts of posts are those of the speakers, rather than mine.

Robin Barooah leads a session on location tracking at Quantified Self. He’s been developing a tool called Location Swap that is similar in functionality to Google Latitude – it allows you to track your location and share it with others. (He explains that he was working on the project well before Google launched the service.) He describes the ability to know where your partner or your friends are at all times as “an augmented sense”, an awareness that wasn’t possible before technological changes. The change, he offers, might be like the changes in behavior that come from having mobile phones and not being tied to landline phones.

The conversation quickly turns into a discussion of whether people really want to share their location, 24/7, with partners or others. Many of the people in the room would be willing to do so, and a few strongly object to the idea. One participant notes, “I used to live in Amsterdam, and culturally, no one closes their curtains. But there’s a strong cultural norm – you don’t look in the window.” Some of those who object to the idea of sharing location information aren’t worried about their movements, but don’t want their partner or friends feeling surveilled. Barooah admits that this information can be quite personal – he designed the tool initially to track and share his own behaviors, and ended up concluding that he wasn’t comfortable sharing that data.

Could we use location information to access sensor networks available in the physical world? What could we learn from tapping what’s being recorded around us? Josh Kaufmann recommends Asthmapolis, a system that maps the places in which asthma attacks are triggered, by attaching a GPS tag to inhalers, and sending location information to a server. What results is a map of areas in a city with particularly high levels of lung irritants, which might trigger protests against pollution.

There’s a great deal of concern about tracking systems that can’t be turned off. Mary Hodder talks about systems she’s built with telephone companies – it’s critical to have the ability to turn a system off. Tracking trucks for a trucking company is a legitimate activity while drivers are on duty, but the system needs to shut off when they’re off duty. On any of these systems, we need the ability to mediate who the information is shared with.

We talk about what tools people could use to track their data. Several people point out that using GPS continually on your phone tends to run down your batteries – Google Latitude may have done some smart thinking about this, and might be an option for some applications, even if the tool is designed primarily for sharing your location information with others. Mary points to some of the limitations of getting accurate tracking data – GPS is quite accurate, but not always available. On non-smartphones, AGPS – triangulation between towers – gets accuracy to a couple hundred feet. She notes that you can either collect your own data via applications or buy the data from carriers, which Loopt is evidently doing.

I asked people to talk about what they’re hoping to get out of tracking their location. Robin noted that location can be a proxy for behavior – if I’m in the park, I’m probably walking the dog. In the spirit of collecting as much data as possible, it seems silly not to collect this data, since it’s a form of passive sensing that’s perpetually available.

One participant is working on an app – tentatively named “Tripography” – that extrapolates what means of transportation you’re using based on your speed and calculates either calories burned (if you’re walking or biking) or CO2 emitted. The goal is to celebrate people for using low-carbon transport and to suggest alternatives. Another participant studies face to face social interaction and is interested in tracking location as a proxy for interaction. A third hopes to track location and correlate it to financial information – how much money do I spend per day when I’m in San Francisco, versus in Davis, CA? Josh suggests that we might learn from Mark Shepard, whose Sentient City Survival Kit includes an iPhone ap – Serendipitor – that will allow you to calculate a circuitous route between two locations in the hopes of having an unexpected encounter with something surprising and wonderful.


I was a little surprised that more individuals weren’t engaged with tracking their own location data. As at least one person in the session put it, “Well, I know where I am.” Of course, the whole premise of the quantitative self movement is that you often don’t know where you are until you have the data.

I’m fascinated by location tracking, because I suspect many of us inhabit much narrower physical spaces than we suspect or believe. (See my CHI talk on serendipity for more on this.) This session left me with the sense that the QS movement, in large part, is a personal health movement, at this point, rather than a personal data movement.

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2 Responses to Quantified Self – Location Tracking

  1. dirk_s says:

    Regarding whether LocationSwap or Latitude was first… It doesn’t matter. Either both have different unique features, or they just compete.

    Latitude is at least the most used service in my friends network. It proves valuable, e.g. when meeting with another person… also to have a personal history. Also serendipity for me is reason enough for using location tracking an sharing on a authorized peer to peer basis.

    Google Latitude offers an API … so basically its a question on what to build upon it ;)

  2. Pingback: Où va la Quantification de Soi? (Internet Actu) | Navicorp

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