We're in the midst of a boom in devices that show where people are at any point in time. Global positioning systems are among the hottest consumer electronics devices ever, says Clinet Wheelock, chief research officer at ABI Research, a technology market follower. And cellphones increasingly come with G.P.S. chips. All of these devices churn out data that says something about how people live.
Such data could redefine what we know about consumer behaviour, giving businesses early insight into economic trends, better ways to determine sites for offices and retain stores, and more effective ways to advertise.
'New research that makes creative use of sensitive location-tracking data from 100,000 cellphones in Europe suggests that most people can be found in one of just a few locations at any time, and that they do not generally go far from home.' Knowing those routines means that you can set probabilities to them, and track how they change.
It's hard to make sense of such data, but Sense Networks, a software analytics company in New York, earlier this month released Macrosense, a tool that aims to do just that. Macrosense applied complex statistical algorithms to sift through the growing heaps of data about location and to make predictions or recommendations on various questions where a company should put its next store, for example.
Sense is not the only company engaged in reality mining. Inrix, a Microsoft spin-off, uses traffic data to predict traffic patterns. Path Intelligence of Britain monitors traffic flow in shopping centers by tracking cell-phones. Reality mining raises instant questions about privacy, especially when cellphone data is involved. In United States, it is illegal in many cases for cellphone companies to share customers' location data without their prior consent.
Though is needed is only the aggregate data and not the specific behaviour of individuals and there is little doubt that products we use everyday, like our cellphones or cars, will increasingly allow mapping the activities of people in general.
Gartner reports that the market which includes various navigation and search devices and subscriptions and services will nearly triple in revenue this year, to $ 1.3 billion from $485 million in 2007, and will reach $8 billion in 2011.