Using Big Data

While signal testing my way through Omaha a friend in Kansas City, Missouri got in touch and let me know about KC’s City Camp (Un)Conference, happening that weekend at the Kauffman Foundation. She knew I would be in town and wanted to know if I’d be down for talking about what I was doing. Of course I said yes and set to planning a 15 minute talk about some of the things I’ve come across in my travels.

Un-conferences involve a lot of large post-its.

Un-conferences involve a lot of large post-its.

Kansas City is fast becoming a model for industry-to-technology civic transition. It’s not a huge city – #37 in US population and not even in the top 100 as far as population density. But a series of forward thinking leaders and elected officials have embraced an emerging tech sector and made it a center of what the midwest has dubbed the “Silicon Prairie”. A huge helping hand has come from being chosen as one of the first Google Fiber cities, promising a gigabit of bandwidth for a price comparable with standard (and much slower) cable services. Also leading the way into the future are initiatives like Code for America, Homes for Hackers, and Launch KC that are just coming into fruition in many cities twice the size. But enough of the tourism pamphlet, what was I going to talk about for 15 minutes?

Millie Dishes on Big Data at KC City Camp

Millie Dishes on Big Data at KC City Camp

One of the big focuses of my friend Millie Crossland’s (‪@milliecross‬) talk is the city’s open data initiative. As information geeks, we talked a lot about what it means to have all those data points out there – transit info, crime data, public utility maps, 311, etc. Transparency is a big factor. For a government official to be able to say with confidence that any of their district’s budget or crime info is out for all to see is a huge step in the right direction for our democratic process. On a micro level it allows for individual citizens to participate in a more verifiable way. For someone reporting a pothole on their street, the knowledge that their complaint, and their neighbors complaints, have been logged, responded to via text or email, and scheduled to be fixed on a specific timeline is much more satisfying than leaving another anonymous message on a voicemail system.

But back to me, what happens with the kind of data that I’m collecting? The two main goals are pretty clear. OpenSignal wants a baseline for their crowdsourced coverage data and TechHive wants to rate the best nationwide carriers for 3G and 4G service. Clearly this is information that is useful to consumers and to the marketing departments in whichever companies are rated highly.

We are at a point in civic data collection in many cities where we are not lacking for information, but for useful ways to parse all this information. City Data Hackathons have become a standard celebration of new datasets, but to me what that really means is that cities and private organizations alike are saying “Please help us make sense of this! We know it’s useful… somehow.” The same goes for all the mobile carrier and signal data I’ve been gathering in my trip across the country.

In my talk, I explained what I was doing traveling across the country and I opened it up to the audience: “How might mobile coverage data be useful on a wider scale?”

One idea was to make coverage data available and easily accessible to EMS, on-call medical and remote healthcare workers. This could allow them to choose the best communication system for their area. For instance, in highly coverage-variable or wide rural areas, it may be most useful to have both an AT&T and a Verizon device available to send and receive critical messages. During the recent Boston bombing, on-call doctors were summoned with vague garbled voice calls and text messages (“mass-casualty…. we need you….”), a redundancy system wherein a message is sent to duplicate devices across common local carriers may have helped get messages across overloaded lines.

Cell phone belt

To be honest, I’m not sure if it would work or even make things worse, or just ensure on-call doctors looked like this.

Another idea that came up was for better legislative action where the telecom industry is concerned. Back in 1913, access to basic landline telephony was legislated as a universal right in the United States “ensuring that virtually every resident has access to local exchange wireline telephone service” (Bluhm & Bernt, pdf). State by state, with more and more houses relying only on mobile phones, that legislation is being backpedaled, with the expectation that the market direction of increased mobile use will fill the gap. This might be okay if every place in the country had a legislative guarantee of some kind of cellular service OR landline service, but there are no moves in that direction, which means entire rural areas of the country could slowly blink off the communication grid – areas that could be predicted pretty easily by analyzing something like OpenSignals heat maps.

What’s your idea? Where do you see all these data points leading us?

Let us know over Facebook or Twitter!

You can follow my travels on Facebook (OpenSignal Gabe), FourSquare (OpenSignal) where I’ll be checking in periodically. I’ll also be blogging some more about my epic road trip here on the OpenSignal Blog.

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