By listening to the signal your phone broadcasts as it searches for Wi-Fi networks, Presence Orb wants to provide an anonymised data stream showing where everyone is in real-time
“When you go to [Facebook] Places and it says ‘x’ people were here? That’s a useless statistic,” says Thomas Sheppard, co-founder of Presence Orb. “I don’t care how many people have been there, I want to know how many people are there now.”
The world has seen a variety of location-based services and almost all have failed to gain widespread use or to be uniquely useful. Facebook check-ins have languished, the vast majority of Twitter users keep location information disabled on their tweets and Foursquare remains the preserve of Silicon Valley.
Presence Orb could have the potential to finally give location-based services the kick they have been waiting for. By listening to the signal your smartphone broadcasts as it searches for Wi-Fi networks, the hope is that it will provide an anonymised and aggregated open data stream showing, effectively, where everyone is in real-time.
Imagine Citymapper not only telling you when your bus will arrive, but how full it is and the likelihood of enough people getting off at your stop to allow you to squeeze on. With Presence Orb’s software installed on the ever-increasing number of public Wi-Fi hotspots, you could know exactly how busy a bar will be before you and your date arrive.
That’s the future Sheppard and his co-founder Alan Graham envisage. The challenge they face, particularly after a baptism of fire last summer over recycling bins in the City of London, is persuading consumers that the benefits outweigh the privacy concerns.
Online shops are already able to access a wealth of information about their consumers. When you a visit a website, cookies can provide that site with information about what sites you previously visited, what items you have been viewing on Amazon and what you like on Facebook. The smartphone itself is fast becoming a huge opportunity for brick and mortar retailers too though.
Innovations like Apple’s iBeacon, and the businesses taking advantage of it, are helping highstreet stores level the playing the field. Now when you walk into a physical shop, your phone has the power to give the retailer a similar amount of information as they would receive if you visited online: when you last visited, how long you spend in the store, and targeted product advertising, for example.
In the United States, Swirl is one of the companies leading innovation in this area. In February, the jewellery store Alex and Ani announced it would be rolling out Swirl’s iBeacon technology in all 40 of its US stores. But making sure consumers are comfortable with the pace of innovation is crucial.
“Privacy is significant concern for consumers,” Swirl CEO Hilmi Ozguz tells Wired.co.uk via email. “But we’ve found that 77 percent of consumers would willingly share their location information with a retailer if they received clear value in return.”
“The minute that a robber got wind of this, they’re just going to switch off their phone,” says Sheppard.
The team soon re-engineered their idea for advertising and retail, joining a string of companies working in the space, including Swirl, shopkick and inMarket. One US advertiser, RedPost, is using Presence Orb to improve the sale of newspapers.
“There was 500 people footfall in the store, and they knew 30 newspapers were purchased. They didn’t know there was 500 footfall previously. We’re now showing them what the potential market is,” says Sheppard.
Their relationship with another client, Renew London, which operated recycling bins featuring advertising screens in the City of London, was to prove controversial.
Renew London outfitted their bins with Presence Orb’s technology and over the space of two weeks in May and June 2013 recorded over 530,000 smartphones passing by, giving Renew an anonymised picture of footfall around their bins. The data was invaluable for understanding how many people were viewing Renew London’s advertising.
But it also sparked public outrage. First reported by Quartz in August, the news quickly went global, receiving mentions in New York Magazine and ABC News, as well as British media outlets. At the time, Renew London’s CEO Kaveh Memari, who could not be reached for this article, admitted “some of the technology we will be testing will be on the boundaries of what is regulated” and said he wanted to collaborate with privacy groups. But the City of London soon stepped in, referring the issue to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) and ordering Renew to cease the data collection.
In October, Renew London fell into administration. After investigating, the ICO found that “no further action” needed to be taken and said that Renew London’s data collection was “a proof-of-concept trial which used aggregate data” and therefore didn’t involve any personal data.
During the controversy, Sheppard declined to comment and Presence Orb largely stayed out of the spotlight. Now, speaking publically on the issue for the first time, he strikes a humble tone.
“Once bitten twice shy is a phrase that comes to mind,” says Sheppard. “Consumers will dictate how this technology advances.”
Soon after the outrage subsided, Presence Orb’s six-month residency at Cisco’s accelerator lab in London wrapped up. The company returned to its base in Harrogate, Yorkshire, and went back to the drawing board. The Renew London debacle convinced them they needed to make their technology as anonymous as possible. Today, it says, it’s “extremely difficult” if not impossible to recover individual data after it has been aggregated and anonymised soon after being recorded. It’s also dropped its old tagline, “A Cookie For The Real World”, explaining that it gave the wrong impression that Presence Orb was saving a file on people’s phones.
There is understandable scepticism about any service that records personal information. On the security side, the Heartbleed bug has reminded the public that there is no such thing as a completely secure computer system. When it comes to anonymous information, the Care.data debacle has shown the potential for information to be deanonymised when compared with other data sets.
Sheppard says Presence Orb records the bare minimum amount of data in order to provide an aggregate picture of groups, not individuals, and that the identification of specific devices would only ever be with the explicit consent of the owner in an opt-in model.
Over in the US, Swirl’s CEO Hilmi Ozguz is clear that consumer consent is vital. “Consumers also want control when it comes to sharing their information, so gaining explicit opt-in permission upfront is key to maintaining trust.”
If we can get used to the idea that our smartphones can be passively detected, the impact on society of technology like Presence Orb could be transformative. Companies like Waze have used the aggregate data of the crowd to improve city traffic with huge economic benefits. An open data stream showing the location of crowds in cities could change how we make decisions about where to eat, drink and travel.
And if you want to opt-out, it is as easy as turning off the Wi-Fi on your phone.