Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
A biweekly tour of the ever-expanding cartographic landscape.
Last week, a New York Times investigation revealed how many of the apps on your phone track your location data in order to package and sell it to advertisers, at remarkably high resolution. Trips to hospitals, government offices, jails, and clinics; your kid’s school by day and your ex’s house by night: companies are registering these types of coordinates frequently (every 21 minutes in one dataset, the Times found) and making biographical inferences about you, for the basic purpose of nudging you towards places you’ll buy stuff.
Read the article in full, especially to explore the impactful interactive visualizations the Times created. Given the hailstorm of data privacy revelations in 2018, the findings of the article themselves aren’t necessarily stunning. If you pay attention to the tech industry, you know that your data is a core product for many of the services you use on your phone—as much as, if not more so than, the services themselves. “Location intelligence” is no exception; indeed, it’s a $21 billion industry.
The question is, what’s the harm? In the case of an officer running laps around a top-secret military base, fine-grain location data could obviously be dangerous in the hands of the wrong guy, or someone who’s merely careless. For the average person? The prospect of disclosing intimate details hasn’t bothered most of us enough to opt out of Facebook, Amazon, and Google.
But the fact that apps are influencing our behavior in physical space, and not only in the digital realm, might be particularly disturbing. Our paths through the world would appear to be less self-determined than we believe. Google Maps’ “areas of interest” feature is a less opaque example of how location-based nudges can favor certain neighborhoods over others, potentially reinforcing old biases and socioeconomic stratifications.
What think you, reader? Are you bothered by the location-tracking happening on your phone three times an hour? What do you see as the possible implications, for better or worse? Email me your thoughts—I might feature them in a future issue.
From tree to shining tree
Immigration is one of the most contentious political issues of our time. But here’s a way to look at the facts, closely and quietly, at least for a moment: CityLab’s Tanvi Misra wrote about a set of visualizations by Northeastern University researchers that renders 200 years of U.S. immigration data as the rings of a tree.
Here, the metaphorical mighty tree is the United States, and if you follow the metaphor to its logical conclusion, it has been made thicker and stronger by the waves of immigrants who have arrived over the decades. Each colored “cell” represents 100 immigrants; over time, the algorithm deposits them in concentric rings, with each ring marking a decade.
Dendrochronology, or the study of climate and ecology through tree growth rings, strikes me as a humbling field of science. Silent as they may be, trees have stories to tell about nothing less than the planet’s history. Maybe people should hush up, listen, and learn. Equally good advice when it comes to immigration, perhaps.
More location data creep: Facebook’s plans to predict your next move (Buzzfeed) ♦ Biological research warfare: scientists are planting fake turtle eggs to track poachers (Vice) ♦ Talk about coverage gaps: it’s really hard to get to a hospital in rural America (CityLab) ♦ Uh, could bad car loans targeting Americans of color trigger the next recession? Welcome to the world of subprime auto lending (CityLab) ♦ To save local news, make a map, urges a media researcher (Nieman Lab) ♦ Brain maps are getting a lot more detailed—down to the cell (New York Times)
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See you in 2019!