urbanter

Student blog of the Stanford University Urban Studies Department

You know where to find me

The stir this week over mobile devices’ tracking and storing users’ locations has raised a bunch of consumer-privacy concerns, but in the spirit of The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal regarding the “weird privacy snafu,” we might as well learn from it. Herein: a recap, a map and some queries for the urban-minded among us.

If you’re catching up, here’s my best attempt at a quick synopsis:

I mapped my own data using the researchers’ app. Here’s a snapshot of my Bay Area movements since September:

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The privacy concerns are valid: anyone with access to my phone or computer could get this data, the researchers point out. But we can still ask other types of questions about our newfound troves of spatial information — and as I overheard someone saying today, our attitudes about all this may well evolve.

One question this raises for me is: if such rich visualizations of data become widely available to us someday, how will it affect us as consumers? Voters? Admittedly, my map above — both simple and personal — got me thinking about security even more than, say, the Wall Street Journal’s “What They Know” series on digital privacy, which paints a much fuller picture of the issue. Is data visualization — especially when consumers and voters can personally connect to it — on its way toward focusing wider audiences on issues important to them?

(I say “wider” because in my own field, journalism, in the so-called “digital humanities,” and surely elsewhere, data visualization already finds itself a catchphrase. A couple great examples I’ve gotten to see up close are The Texas Tribune, where I interned last summer, and in the course “Tooling Up for the Digital Humanities,” which I’m taking this quarter.)

Second: let’s assume the massive trove of personal data we’re accumulating in the digital age can someday inform scholarly research. What, as urbanists, would we use it for? Could we learn more, or more easily, about trends in suburban commuting? Activity patterns in national parks? Urbanization in the developing world?

Leave your thoughts in the comment section.

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