It seems like every app out there can tell us our positioning. GPS is a powerful tool in each of our pockets, from making Google search more aware to geotagging our photos on Instagram. But there’s so much more lurking inside our phones than just GPS. Our phones can see our one location, sure, but they also track where we go all the time. They see the apps we run and when we run them. They sense light and sound. They can detect radio networks and even the other devices in the area. They know who we call, text, and email. They know us better than anyone.
Behavio is a startup born out of MIT Media Lab. A recent recipient of a Knight Foundation grant, they’re interested in tapping all of the sensor information in our mobile devices through an open source API called Funf. It’s currently available on Android and in use by a few hundred developers, including the OLPC project to understand how laptops are being used in the field.
“We believe that understanding human behavior and context is the next frontier, and we want to commoditize and democratize this capability,” co-founder Nadav Aharony tells Co.Design. “We want to let people tap into, and take control of, their own data, and give them tools that help them use it to make their lives better and more productive. We want to give the single developer working in his garage the ability to easily build apps and services that can do amazing things that they would never be able to do on their own.”
To get an idea of what all that means, take a look at the above conceptual screenshot. What you’re looking at isn’t something Behavio has planned for a HUD. Rather, it’s a visual of what your average smartphone can see all the time. Consider what we could do just with what you see here. By discovering a friend’s mobile device nearby, I could check out the pictures he’s taken that day. If my phone sensed a noisy environment, it could attenuate its volume—or better still, it could auto-respond to text messages, informing my friends that I might not have gotten their messages.
The more of these senses that are part of our shared mobile experience, the more complex of a social graph Behavio can build. If Facebook shows us what we like and what our friends like, Behavio wants to show us how we live and how our friends live. “Bottom line, Facebook is a social graph. Not the social graph,” argues co-founder Cody Sumter. “And our phones can help us get at some of those real world social graphs.”
But aside from the new experiences such technology could enable, obvious issues of privacy come up. Funf can see phone data including: "GPS, Location, WLAN, Accelerometer, Bluetooth, Cell tower ID, Call log, SMS log, Browser history, Contacts, Running apps, Installed apps, Screen on/off state, Battery status, [and more] …" That’s basically everything your phone has. Behavio maintains that they’re interested in gathering data “ethically,” defining that as “ informing the users, receiving their consent, protecting user privacy, and dealing with their information with respect and responsibility.” Even still, that may be a tough sell. People are already afraid of Facebook, after all, and that’s only following them across the web. Funf is looking at my text message history.
In turn, Behavio takes the stance of sticking up for the little guy—be that a for-profit company or an individual—in unleashing the power of big data (a privilege normally available only to the Facebooks, the Googles, the AT&Ts, and the Apples).
“Only the big players have the resources to access and utilize these capabilities, and when they do, their code is usually proprietary and not accessible to developers,” writes Aharony. “In addition, the data itself is often not available to the end users, if they are even aware it is being collected. Smaller organizations end up duplicating basic functionality, over and over again. We want to change that.”
So let me get this straight: If current data collection is like iTunes, organized by large entities as a one-way street, Behavio proposes a world of P2P data sharing, ultimately built by the masses for the masses? Frankly, I’m not so certain the ultimate implications for the end user will be different in either case. But for independent developers wanting to innovate around big data concepts, it could be a whole new world.
[Hat tip: psfk]
[Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock]