FearSquare : A Dataset to be Feared?

A recently launched mobile phone application provides a useful insight into what could be possible if public authority datasets are fully exploited.

Many datasets are routinely published  by public authorities and are available for re use at little or no cost. Others can be accessed by making a request under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOI). The Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 , which received Royal Assent on 1st May 2011, will make access and re use of datasets much easier. Once the Act is brought into force, amongst other things, it will amend FOI so that in the future public authorities will have greater obligations in relation to the release and publication of datasets. The key points are:

  • There will be a new duty on public authorities, when releasing datasets, to adhere to any request to do so in electronic form which allows its re-use where reasonably practicable.
  • Any dataset containing copyright material (where the authority holds the copyright) must be made available for re-use under a specified licence.
  • Publication schemes will in future contain a requirement to publish datasets, which have been requested, as well as any updated versions.
  • Such datasets will also have to be published in an electronic form capable of re use and any copyright material must be available for re use in accordance with the terms of a specified licence.

On the face of it, these obligations seem onerous. However they may also bring an opportunity for public authorities to raise some much needed revenue. They will be able to charge a fee (and make a profit) for allowing re use of any datasets containing copyright material (Read Ibrahim Hasan’s detailed article on the dataset provisions).

Once datasets are released, the idea is that clever people out there will think of innovative uses for them. This may involve a “mash up” with other data. One example is Fearsquare. Its website states:

“FearSquare is an application which allows FourSquare** users in the UK to easily see the official crime statistics for the places where you ‘check-in’. The intention is to give you a uniquely individual look at the levels and types of crimes you are exposed to in your daily life.”

** If you are not “cool” and “with it” like me, go to the end of this blog post for a brief explanation of Foursquare.

Foursquare knows all the locations that a user visits most often. These may be areas with high levels of recorded crime or are known for specific types of crime. For example, a user may be contemplating walking in an unfamiliar area where there have been a lot of muggings. FearSquare aims to keep the user updated on their surroundings and the levels and types of crimes recorded nearby. After all, forewarned is forearmed!

Fearsquare takes its crime stats from the UK Police Crime Statistics database. It has a “leaderboard” of the most dangerous areas based on the crime reported. The leaderboard gives out points to the most crime-heavy areas based on the types of infractions that take place, be it robbery or weapons related crimes.The site also has a real-time ticker that displays check-ins that have unlocked crime statistics, which serves as another way of discovering places that a user should be weary of visiting alone.

Interestingly there is a “game” built into FearSquare. The bold and the brave are awarded points when they visit the most crime-ridden areas in the UK. I think I will stick to establishments offering Nectar Points!

Fearsquare is the brainchild of Lincoln Social Computing Research Centre(part of the University of Lincoln) and is part of a study looking at how this sort of personalised data could change user behaviour. It is a good example of an innovative use of an openly available dataset. Public authorities need to start work now on identifying useful datasets they hold and raising awareness amongst stakeholder departments as to how they could be exploited. This opportunity, which should not be left to the private sector alone, nor should it be the realm of those who are motivated by profit.

Now if Dorothy or Little Red Riding Hood had this app on their mobile phones, i wonder which route they would they have taken?

NB Foursquare is an application (very popular in the US, less so here) which allows users to use the location services on their mobile phone to electronically “check in” at various locations; from coffee shops, pubs and restaurants to supermarkets. More check ins mean prizes as well as the much-envied status of “mayor” of a certain location. See https://foursquare.com/about/ for more.

New Webinar– For more on this and other aspects of the Protection of Freedoms Act, join us on our one-hour online seminar: http://www.actnow.org.uk/courses/city_ONLINE

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5 Responses to FearSquare : A Dataset to be Feared?

  1. Ian says:

    Depersonalized data has its challenges but the use and matching of
    personal data appears far more dangerous to society as a whole.

    The
    widespread surveillance and then matching of personal data from a wide
    variety of sources may assist in measuring aspects of business or
    society, but the additional uses then often found (problems looking for
    answers or answers looking for problems) seem to be insidiously
    undermining a fundamental facet. When people within society suppress
    their natural inquisitiveness because they are likely to be compromised
    in the future as a result of that inquisitiveness a hidden problem
    would seem to develop to which those causing it are either unaware or
    uncaring. We are training our young to be less inquisitive than their
    forefathers because of the collection and matching of their retained
    data which is later accessed for unconnected and contextually disparate
    purposes where it is interpreted within a singly focused and
    contextually unconnected environment. If correct, this viewpoint
    should become most noticeable, most quickly within those people who
    require to focus early upon roles within highly educated and socially
    controlled environments.

    My own experiences in DP did reveal early
    aspects of this in people I often professionally came into contact
    with. Whilst their actions could be interpreted as driven by fear,
    others would say it was care, focus or prudence, less popular words but
    none the less being used in that same context. So the issue you write
    about in FearSquare could be that there is reducing opportunity to form
    a virtuous circle because courage makes no difference in the context of
    data-matching and interpretation.

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