The Data Basis of Pokémania
The success of Pokémon Go means more than profits for the developers -- it may be the first of many ways companies exploit large amounts of location data.
- By Barry Devlin
- July 20, 2016
Like a careless match flicked into a crate of Fourth of July fireworks, Pokémon Go exploded on a largely unsuspecting world two days after Independence Day.
Niantic’s infrastructure struggles to cope with soaring demand. Privacy and safety concerns are rife, as James Powell recently described here on TDWI Upside. Fortune magazine reports that the app has higher mobile usage than Netflix, Pandora, or Twitter.
It’s easy to imagine we’re witnessing some form of augmented reality revolution. The truth is more mundane but its implications are more challenging: a new wave of big data exploitation has crested.
The game continuously gathers and stores location and movement data, creating a data matrix in time and space of player’s lives -- a four-dimensional metadata (4DM) map of their detailed behavior. Linked to personally identifiable information -- based on the terms and conditions agreed to (mostly without the slightest qualm) at signup -- the combination is irresistible to marketers, criminals, and law enforcement agents alike.
In terms of actual privacy, however, Pokémon Go is no game changer.
We tacitly agree to the possibility of such tracking when we use location services on Google Maps for the convenience of not remembering the nearest pizza parlor, when we quantify our exercise habits, diets, and heart rates via wearable devices, when we amuse ourselves by posting dated and geolocated videos. We implicitly expose details of our location and schedule through home security and automation systems.
New York City is installing futuristic LinkNYC kiosks that offer, among other things, free gigabit internet via an embedded tablet or via Wi-Fi on users' mobile devices.
Installed and run by a consortium called CityBridge and linked to Alphabet/Google, this “free” service is paid for through monetization of the location and browsing data gathered by the kiosks, which also contain embedded (yet to be enabled) Bluetooth beacons presumably to feed on additional tasty location tracking data.
As far back as 1999, Scott McNealy, then CEO of Sun declared -- whether with prescience or intent, I don’t know -- “You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.” Many companies today seem to be competing to prove him right.
Can We Integrate Data and Reality?
What Pokémon Go hints at, but actually delivers poorly on, is the increasing integration that is becoming possible between the digital and physical worlds. Augmented reality and -- in a more extreme form -- virtual reality offer to blend our experience on electronic devices with the input of our more traditional senses and encourage us to act on that amalgam of digital bits and physical pieces.
The combination of 4DM and potentially limitless data from Internet of Things (IoT) devices about events and measures in the physical world has the potential to upgrade and improve the impact of technology in the modern world.
True “telepresence” could significantly reduce the need for commuting and long-distance travel for both business and pleasure.
Analytics based on real data showing where and how people actually spend their time could provide a firmer foundation for economic planning, social programs, and health services than current methods based on outdated data and faulty assumptions. The real-time nature of this data might further allow for quicker intervention in emergency situations.
Penal systems could be reinvented by curtailing freedom of movement using 4DM and virtual boundaries of movement rather than physical walls for many lesser offences.
Ecological and biological exploration and experimentation could use hi-res imaging and inch-perfect mapping to remotely monitor environmental and geological changes as they occur and react quickly. Elephant and rhino poaching could be significantly reduced through the use of embedded location, motion, and vital-signs sensing devices and drone-based imaging technology.
Beyond the hype of getting gamers outside to meet their neighbors (health-enhancing) and wandering on to train tracks or getting robbed or shot at (not-so-healthy), the underlying questions here are around the technology and the data -- and what we do with them.
Future of Location Data
Unfortunately, the scenarios most widely envisaged by both commercial and governmental bodies seem closer to “bread and circuses” to placate the masses than social improvements.
Through various new technologies and the vast base of data being gathered, we are variously offered personal entertainment, social chitchat, and inducements to buy more unneeded stuff. More ominously, we subject ourselves to surveillance so that every fleeting desire may be monetized.
As discussed by Jason Perlow, Niantic’s monetization approach is currently simplistic; there are burgeoning opportunities for location-based marketing tie-ins that future games and apps could include.
Could we possibly instead use this wonderful, almost magical, 4DM and IoT data resource to eliminate social injustice, reduce economic inequality, and tackle the slow-motion -- but rapidly accelerating -- train wreck that is climate change?
Oxford scholars Ian Goldin and Chris Kutarna suggest in Age of Discovery that “The present age is a contest: between the good and bad consequences of global entanglement and human development; between forces of inclusion and exclusion... Whether the 21st century goes down ... as one of humanity’s best or worst depends on what we all do to promote the possibilities and dampen the dangers this contest brings.”
About the Author
Dr. Barry Devlin defined the first data warehouse architecture in 1985 and is among the world’s foremost authorities on BI, big data, and beyond. His 2013 book, Business unIntelligence, offers a new architecture for modern information use and management.