Mobile: The Measure of All Things (Big Data Week talk)

These are the slides from a talk I gave at Big Data Week London 2014.

We carry take our mobiles with us wherever we go, we keep them fuelled with energy and, typically, there’s no other object we own that is so sensitive to our surroundings.

This makes mobiles ideal for capturing a rich dataset about human activities and the man-made & natural environment around them. In fact mobiles are far more capable than humans as measurement tools – or sensors.

Man vs Mobile sensors

  • Mobiles can sense things we can’t – like magnetism & atmospheric pressure.
  • Mobile sensors can provide quantified and accurate readings (for example “it’s 22 degrees Centigrade”) vs only qualitative ones (“It’s quite warm”).
  • Mobile sensors can exceed human sensors in terms of the range they cover – for example the microphones on devices can pick up sounds invisible to human ears – for example the New Forest Cicada.
  • Mobiles are better at regularly reading and storing information (logging), humans find this boring.

Mobiles are getting more plentiful, being equipped with more sensor hardware, and that hardware is operating at a new level of efficiency. Taken together, this means mobile sensors could become the predominant datasource of the 21st century.

Sensors such as the gas sensor that Sensirion has developed for mobile, mean that mobiles are catching up in the few places where humans have better sensory capabilities. Co-processing or sensor batching, whereby sensors do not need to run on the main system chip, means that taking and saving sensor readings is becoming 1000* more efficient.

At OpenSignal and WeatherSignal we’re exploring the ways mobile sensors can be aggregated into sensor networks, by creating engaging apps and communities of contributors.

Our main aim is to create independent coverage maps and otherwise provide an impartial and data-backed view of how mobile networks perform. In the talk I refer to three different, and surprising, ways the data can be used. We’ve written about two of these elsewhere: how phone batteries measure the weather, how WiFis are used to express political sentiment.

The sensors in phones constitute the most powerful scientific apparatus in the world. Let’s get measuring.

My thanks to: Stewart Townsend, Ande Gregson and Ben Lorica for organising and inviting me along.

EDIT: In case you’re worrying that James sounds like he basically just views humans as inefficient sensors, well… you’d be right, as the below screenshot demonstrates. -SJ  

can a sensor love

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