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QSEU14 Breakout: Passive Sensing with Smartphones

Today’s post comes to use from Freek Van Polen. Freek works at Sense Observations Systems, where they develop passive sensing applications and tools for smartphones. At the 2014 Quantified Self Europe Conference Freek led a breakout session where attendees discussed the opportunities, pitfalls, and ethical challenges associated with the increasing amount of passive data collection that is possible through the many different sensors we’re already carrying around in our pockets. We invite you to read his short description of the breakout below and continue the conversation on our forum.

Passive Sensing with Smartphones
by Freek van Polen

The session started out by using Google Now as an example of what passive sensing is, and finding out what people think about usage of sensor data in such a way. It quickly became apparent that people tend to be creeped out when Google Now suddenly appears to know where they live and where their work is, and especially dislike it when it starts giving them unsolicited advice. Following this discussion we arrived at a distinction between explicit and implicit sensing, where it is not so much about whether the user has to actively switch on sensing or enter information, but rather about whether the user is aware that sensing is going on.

From there the “uncanny valley” with respect to sensing on smartphones was discussed, as well as what would people be willing to allow an app to sense for. An idea for a BBC-app that would keep track of how much attention you pay to what you’re watching on television, and that would subsequently try to get you more engaged, was met with a lot of frowning. It was furthermore pointed out that passive sensing might be risky in the vicinity of children, as they are easily impressionable, are not capable of assessing whether it is desirable to have passive sensing going, and can be tricked into giving up a lot of information.

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