Interview: Michael Zimbalist on collecting your iPhone's location data with openpaths.cc

A couple of weeks ago, researchers discovered that Apple had been collecting and storing location data from iPhones and iPads for the past year or longer, essentially recording the device’s whereabouts every few minutes. In response to the public outcry from this finding, Apple has released a patch to block the gathering of this data, but which will also wind up blocking individuals from accessing their data.

The New York Times Company’s Research and Development Lab believes that that data has significant value to its creators – who have the right to do what they want with their own information - as well as to researchers.  As a result, they launched openpaths.cc, a database of anonymous location records uploaded by users. Before updating your operating system or downloading the patch that will shut down access to your own information, you can “securely store and manage your personal location data, and grant researchers access to portions of that data as you choose.”

We checked in with Michael Zimbalist, vice president and the director of the Times’ Research and Development Lab, who shared his thoughts on the implications for shutting off users’ access to their data, what can be gained from all this information and why the Lab decided to pursue openpaths.cc.

PopTech: Why did the New York Times Research Lab launch openpaths.cc? 
Michael Zimbalist: We believe that people who generate data through their own day-to-day activities should have a right to keep a copy of that data.  We believe that when people have access to their personal data in a useful format all kinds of new things become possible.  We can become better consumers – for example we can know whether a monthly rail pass makes sense for us, or which data-plan would be most economical for our smartphone usage.  But more importantly, when our personal data is readily accessible and under our control we can become active collaborators in the quest for solutions to important social problems in areas such as public health, genetics or urban planning. 

Most people don't want all of their whereabouts tracked and may have been pleased to learn about Apple's solution. Why is openpaths.cc advocating to continue to make that personal information available?
The only thing we're advocating for via openpaths.cc is that the individual person who generated the location data on their own personal device should be allowed to keep a copy of that data if they so choose.

What do you hope will be gained from amassing the personal data that's uploaded to openpaths.cc - for individual use or for research purposes?
At the most basic level we hope that people who choose to upload their personal data will use the visualization tools on openpaths.cc to derive some personal insight – and that they'll find the process of exploring their personal data enjoyable and fun.  That's the personal use part.  Beyond that, our goal for openpaths.cc is to provide a method for researchers to propose projects for the use of the data on openpaths.cc.  These proposals will be circulated to the individual data owners who can then choose to make their data available to the researchers – or not.  The governing philosophy is that citizens should grow to recognize the importance of the data that we generate in our daily lives. And while large organizations such as Apple may rightly maintain a copy of our data for business purposes, we should be allowed to maintain a copy for own use as well.

What will be lost when Apple implements the patch?
The direct answer is that people with iPhones will lose the ability to easily access their own personal location data that is stored on the device.  

On the homepage for openpaths.cc, it says that before Apple releases the patch to prevent the data from being stored, "this data represents a unique opportunity to help solve some of the world's toughest problems."  Can you elaborate upon how this data might serve that purpose?
Each dataset in the openpaths.cc database represents the physical movement of an individual person over time.  Human mobility researchers could use this type of data to help answer fundamental questions such as what are the factors that govern our movements?  How do we respond to emergency situations? Municipal planners can then apply these findings to more practical problems related to mass transportation, or land utilization.

On a more practical note, how does the process work? Can a user customize the data that's uploaded?
The proof is in the pudding, Emily.  So why don't you just go to openpaths.cc and give it a try!

For more on openpaths.cc, check out Nick Bilton's post on the New York Times Bits blog.

Image: openpaths.cc

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