A few years ago, I attended a networking event in Berlin where the topic of anonymised data collection was discussed.
One particular speaker told a story of how Jawbone wearers in the Bay Area reacted to the Napa Earthquake in 2014. By collating the data received from the Jawbone devices, they were able to draw a picture of how widespread the shock of the earthquake was felt, and thus revealing the spread of the event and how people were affected.
They were able to see that 93% of Jawbone wearers living within 15 miles of the epicentre of the ‘quake woke up at 3.20am, and 45% didn’t go back to sleep for the rest of the night.
The reaction to this story divided the room immediately!
Half of the attendees were outraged at what they saw was a violation of intimate information (this was data that was collected directly from the wearers beds after all I suppose!), and the other half of the room marvelled at the wonder of this kind of insight, and brains whirred with the practical application of this level of data analysis.
I was in the latter category.
After all, what was really taken from the Jawbone users that would leave them feeling vulnerable?
There was no personal information, nothing identifiable, and nothing that can be used against them. I’m taking an educated guess, but I would think that the only data that was used to produce these remarkable figures were ‘heartrate ’ and ‘movement’ (although technically, any physics fan will tell you that you can’t accurately measure both of these things at the same time without breaking the uncertainty principle…)
People are right to be guarded about their personal information, absolutely. Most of it is treasured, valuable and, well, personal.
But would you have felt violated if you had been one of the Jawbone wearers in California that night? Knowing that without giving anything away, you have inadvertantly helped scientists gain a better insight into natural disasters?
I sure wouldn’t have minded.
This is just one example, but there are countless others which show how mediated, anonymised personal data can potentially unlock new insights and tell us more about how we, as people, act within and react to, the world around us.
Google Maps, is another great example. They use anonymised data collected from their iOS app on iPhones, and location data from Android devices, to warn drivers of upcoming traffic problems and suggest a better route. I would wager that more than half of us have benefitted from this kind of service in the past, and it wouldn’t be possible unless your data was anonymously shared.
Jawbone and Google are not the only tech companies who collect this kind of data. Most, if not all do. Often, this data is collected as a by-product of another function; location information from an iOS app, shopping trends for an online store etc. This data is then stored and then left unused.
The real power comes however, when these data sets are combined. What if the Jawbone data was compared with that from energy companies, medical centers or public transport operators?
We could get an even more holistic view of how people respond in this kind of scenario, and be able to plan and react better in the future across the board.
Bringing together different anonymised data sets, can provide us with real insights, with real world applications being the benefit.
Maybe it’s time for us as individuals to rethink the anxiety we feel about how some of our data is shared, but maybe it’s also time for more companies like Jawbone and Google to use the rich pool of data that they collect for the greater good.
Shared, anonymous knowledge, when used in a responsible manner, can only lead to great things.