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    IBM Is Harvesting Location Data from Millions of Cell Phone Users to Build Better Bus Lines

    Written by

    Brian Merchant

    Senior Editor

    People globe-wide are flocking to cities, where, the thinking goes, they’ll be able to live nice, robust lives more efficiently and emit less planet-killing pollution. But city living is only really a solution to woes like climate change and resource overconsumption if 1) a city actually helps its residents use resources more effectively and 2) people decide to keep living in them.

    Which is why developing state-of-the-art mass transportation systems is considered such an important part of the equation. If planners fail to look ahead while a city’s population begins to boom, the streets could soon be choked with cars and pocked by impossible commutes, a la Sao Paulo or Moscow. So planners and transit authorities are eager to test out new and envelope-pushing ways to better match service to demand. Perhaps the most radical effort, spearheaded by IBM, involves tapping into millions of people’s mobile phone records, often without their explicit knowledge, to get more and better information about their movement patterns.

    IBM’s Insights in Motion project is running two pilot projects, one in Dubuqe, Iowa, a small, town of 23,000 built on the banks of the Mississippi River, and Istanbul, Turkey, a fast-growing metropolis of 14 million people.

    In its promo video, IBM’s Insights in Motion group explains that

    “The first-of-a-kind project uses IBM research innovations to map billions of pieces of data collected from millions of mobile phone users each week. This big data delivers rich geospatial information in real time that reveals how people move through the city.”

    That data is then processed and used to create a digital tapestry of human transit movement trends—an exponentially more complete portrait of a citizenry’s transportation habits than has ever existed before, allowing the transit authority to adjust service frequency, plan for future stops, and better orchestrate transfers between buses and the new rail system that’s currently under construction. Skip through half this video to see what the mapping looks like in action:

    Eventually, IBM hopes to help Turkey “reduce operating expenses by 40%, meet 37% more demand, reduce average commuter time by 60% and reduce per-traveler combustion emissions by 40%.”

    Which, in a city routinely occupied by 15 million people, counting tourists and travelers, would be a staggering achievement.

    But little has been said about the ramifications of a private company collaborating with the government to collect so much geospatial data about the movements of its citizens. In the wrong context, the project is apt to sound downright Orwellian.

    IBM insists that no private information is being collected at all—just the location data—but it certainly seems to indicate the capacity to do so exists. And, as we’ve seen in Google’s transparency reports, when governments know a company has troves of handy personal data, they’ll come a knocking. Governments have been requesting Google provide them with an increasingly large amount of data—and Google has been responding by to most requests, as in 88% of them, by supplying authorities with “at least some data.”

    Now, there’s no reason to think that IBM would start mining personal mobile phone data in Turkey, let alone supplying it to the government on demand. But it is at least worth recognizing that such monitoring systems are being put in place in, especially in cities with a checkered past of protecting human rights.

    In fact, Turkey has been harshly criticized for its human rights abuses, especially for allegedly imprisoning hundreds of peaceful demonstrators who were known to participate in the Kurdish rights movement. Groups like Human Rights Watch have condemned Turkey for such deeds in 2010, and it is widely believed that such abuses are a leading reason the nation has not yet gained admittance to the European Union.

    Big data, like the sort IBM’s Insights in Motion is harvesting, can clearly be a useful, even revolutionary tool—but care must be taken to ensure that the public fully understands the import of such programs, and that careful and transparent guidelines are put in place to govern them. Citizens should certainly be able to opt out. Because conserving resources and efficiency shouldn’t have to come at the expense of conjuring the specter of Big Brother.