Sunday, July 22, 2018

Scooting Along

"Electric scooters pop up in Somerville and Cambridge, unbeknownst to city officials" by Steve Annear and Katie Camero Globe Staff and Globe Correspondent  July 20, 2018

On Friday, the electric-scooter-sharing company Bird discreetly built its nest in Cambridge and Somerville, rolling out a fleet of dockless scooters, unbeknownst to city officials.

To ride a scooter, a user first has to download the Bird app to his or her smartphone. Once the app is up and running, users then enter their credit card information. An on-screen map uses GPS to show where the scooters can be found.

To unlock a Bird scooter, users have to scan their driver’s license into the app, and then agree to the company’s terms of service: a small list of requirements, including the promise to wear a helmet, not to “double-ride,” and not to cruise along the sidewalks. Users also have to be 18 or older to take a trip.

Once the electric scooter is accessed, all it takes is pushing off three times and holding down the throttle to get moving. A ride costs $1 to start, and then 15 cents for every minute thereafter.

On Friday, as two Globe reporters tested out the scooters, taking them up and down bike lanes in Central and Kendall squares, some people pointed or gawked at the rides. In one case, a person exclaimed “Oh, Birds!” as though they were familiar with the lightweight scooters.

Besides surprising residents in Cambridge and Somerville Friday morning, the small black-and-silver scooters were also apparently a shock to officials in both cities, who said they were unaware of the launch.

Cambridge spokesman Lee Gianetti said Friday that the city “does not have any kind of contract or agreement with Bird” and “was not aware of the rollout of the program.”

Jackie Rossetti, Somerville’s deputy director of communications, issued a nearly identical statement. She added that there’s no official policy on the scooters because they just appeared Friday morning.

When asked whether Bird had contacted city officials about the rollout, a spokesperson said, “We have reached out and look forward to working closely with local leaders and officials.”

Translation: how much money do you want?

Birds can fly up to a maximum of 15 miles per hour and last up to about 15 miles per charge, but they can only be used during the day, before sunset.

Bird has begun operations in more than 20 cities nationwide, including Washington, D.C., Dallas, and Baltimore, but not every community has been welcoming.

In Denver, tensions flared recently between the company and city officials, after the arrival of the scooters. And in Nashville, city officials are mulling regulations on the scooters following “weeks of controversy” that included “scooter sweeps,” according to the website

Two other electric scooter companies — Lime and Spin — have also expressed interest in operating in the New England region, according to


Then there is the scooter for grown-ups.

"Every step you take: How companies use geolocation data to target you — and everyone around — in ways you're not even aware of" by Janelle Nanos

It’s Monday, 6:15 a.m. The alarm sounds, and as I reach for my phone, half-asleep in the dawn, the tracking begins. Going about my daily routine — the commute to work, settling into my desk, then ducking out for lunch or meetings — I’m swiping, clicking, tapping, and typing on my smartphone. All the while, I’m being followed by firms that are tracking, and targeting me, with every step I take, but it’s not hackers or voyeurs following my movements. In fact, I’ve actually welcomed these observers into my life, and sometimes don’t even notice they’re there. But they’re paying minute attention to my every move, then firing away with advertisements, designed for that moment, and just for me.

Most of us now live here, or soon will — at the slightly queasy intersection of consumerism and surveillance.

The dozens of apps on our phones, most of them free, aren’t just serving up information and entertainment. Many are able to ascertain our whereabouts based on the phone’s GPS and can then sell that geolocation data to digital marketers. Unlike traditional print or television ads, location-based marketing has the benefit of knowing where we are, whom we’re with, and whether their ads are working.

If that is all it were, I wouldn't care as much. The problem is, it's all poured into data collection servers available to government.

Geotargeted mobile marketing is one of the fastest growing forms of advertising — and one of the most controversial. It has arisen in part because, as more of us use streaming and on-demand viewing services, we’re watching far fewer television ads. And because so many of us carry our smartphones at all times, digital marketers have seized the opportunity to gather and sell data on where we are, what we do — and what we might want to buy. In 2017, marketers spent $17.1 billion on geotargeted mobile ads, and the research firm BIA Advisory Services forecasts that number will more than double to $38.7 billion by 2022.

Or, as Rick Ducey, a digital strategy adviser with BIA Advisory Services put it in a recent study: “Where you go is who you are.”

Think about it for a second: Even if you don’t share your address, your profession, or what you bought online this year, much could be gleaned from the places you frequent. Do you make a daily visit to the gym? Work in a tall office tower? Wander into a store while taking a lunch break? Each pinpoint on the map of your day helps create a profile, or “audience segment,” that can be used to serve you ads.

All the world is a stage, huh?

This surge in geotargeted ads is raising the ire of privacy advocates, who say marketers can learn far more about us from our location data than we may realize. From such drab and fleeting details, a revealing picture emerges. 


“Not only can I see where you work and live, but I can see where you worship, if you go to a doctor’s office, or what support groups you might be attending,” said Gennie Gebhart, a researcher at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Here’s how the ads find us: Our phone carriers combine cellular data and the phone’s built-in GPS to keep tabs on where we are at all times. That, coupled with your phone’s Wi-Fi, which regularly pings off available networks, creates a base line of geolocation data.

Apps add more data to your profile. They can then anonymize and sell that data to marketers or other intermediaries who can target you with advertising or use that data to make business decisions. Even if you opt out of location tracing, many can still pull information about where you are from other sources, such as your social media profiles.

Now, all in unison!

Of course, there is no such thing as anonymizing. It can always be traced back to you.

Once they access the data streams, marketers can begin using the information to target you. As you walk to work, your phone’s GPS and Wi-Fi data leave digital bread crumbs that a coffee shop can use to send you coupons or help select a location for a new store.

You may want to skip the coffee.

If you check in at the gym daily, marketers will know, and ads for Whole Foods or insurance companies can follow you. If you’re shopping online at work and wander out for lunch break, a store nearby might want to let you it has the shoes you’re looking for in stock and will ping you with an ad.

Ducey said the information helps marketers answer questions. Location data can also test the efficacy of ad campaigns — in the past, companies used basic demographic information to target consumers by age, income level, education, or ethnicity, said John Cheney-Lippold, a professor of Internet Studies at the University of Michigan and the author of “We Are Data.” Then companies began to dig deeper, creating “psychographic profiles” based on our affinities — assessing whether someone is politically liberal or conservative, for example, or identifies as a sports fan or as part of a religious group. This information can be gleaned through surveys, by tracking consumption habits, or through social media, as Cambridge Analytica did by tracking Facebook users in the 2016 elections.


The question is, can they keep a secret?

GPS data offer a degree of objectivity that cuts through complex and sometimes contradictory information about who we are, Cheney-Lippold said. 

Yeah, humans are so complex and contradictory. You would almost be better without us.

“There is something much more intimate in the GPS data,” he said. It has the capacity to track hundreds of data points on things like “how you move through places, and how fast, who you’re moving with, and the places where you stop.” 

Oh, the GPS is now providing intimacy!

“There is something very mundane about GPS that also becomes very profitable,” he said. “You can lie about your data, but you can’t lie about your routine. There is something very real about that.”

Maybe they could develop an app that identifies when government and the pre$$ are lying, 'eh?

Of course, this form of tracking has raised privacy concerns.


European regulators have begun to crack down on how much personal data companies can gather from the public. This May, the European Union passed the General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR, which forces Internet companies to ask for consent before gathering any information from users. 

They are laying down the law and you won't feel a thing.

In the United States, we haven’t yet gotten that far. “Companies are now completely legally able to collect your data,” said Choffnes. The strongest consumer protections come through the Federal Trade Commission, which occasionally cracks down on app developers that fail to disclose just how much data they’re collecting, he said, but the tide is starting to turn.

EFF’s Gebhart said that while some phone carriers have begun limiting the information they share with outside parties, consumers should push companies to adopt best practices to protect our privacy.

“In the current landscape we’re living in, it would take an unrealistic diligence of someone with a computer science and law degree to exhaustingly determine what information is being shared with who and when,” she said.

That is why AI is being developed.

Companies buying and selling geolocation data in the United States now number in the thousands, each slicing and dicing data in ways that would make an unwitting smartphone user’s head spin. And they’re not just selling ads but also making correlations between data sets that can be quite illuminating and lucrative to companies.

David Shim, the chief executive of the location analytics firm Placed, pulls data from over 300 million smartphones each month. He said his company’s aim is to become what Nielsen’s service is for TV, or what comScore is for the Web. “Our goal is to make the physical world as measurable as TV and digital,” he said.

Using phone location data, the company has been able to ascertain that Netflix users most frequently dine at In-N-Out and Chili’s restaurants, and that people who own bitcoin currency are most likely to buy Hyundais and shop at Apple. Those kind of insights could help the restaurants target ads or encourage a Hyundai dealership to start accepting bitcoin.

MIT Media Lab spinout Thasos Group has developed a platform that uses geolocation data to assess economic activity. For the last seven years, it’s been selling hedge funds anonymized GPS data tracking the activity of factory employees at commodity processing plants the funds have invested in. More recently, Thasos has begun focusing on retail, tracking foot traffic patterns at malls, grocery stores, and more.

Just because you can't see the boss.....

Thasos was able to determine, for example, that Whole Foods saw a 17 percent increase in foot traffic last August after its parent company, Amazon, announced it was slashing prices. The company identified Trader Joe’s shoppers as the most common defectors.

Geolocation data provide a degree of “radical transparency” that has the capacity to not only revolutionize the marketing world, but affect real estate, finance, and other industries, Thasos’ founder and chief executive Greg Skibiski said. He believes we need to begin setting standards now to ensure we protect privacy while simultaneously exploring its vast potential. “The data is out there and never coming back,” he said. “And we need rules for it.”

Consumers will need to contemplate those ethical boundaries as daily life more and more frequently intersects with these new digital pathways. Our own geolocation data streams, when combined with those of millions of other users, can reveal powerful patterns. And marketers realize that if “where you go is who you are,” then knowing where all of us are, all of the time, is a force that can shape the future of commerce.....

The total $urveillance $y$tem is worth it!


Can you find me now?

UPDATE: Cambridge and Somerville say Bird scooters aren’t welcome without permits