Although there are many mobile applications, those on smartphones and other types of wireless phones are predominantly entertainment oriented, such as the apps for music and games. Many of the interesting applications introduced in the recent Mobilize 2011 conference are also along this line. This is fine and dandy, but I want to see other applications grow.
In my recent visit to Japan, I discovered an interesting application currently under research by NTT DoCoMo, the largest mobile phone network provider in Japan.
It is called mobile spatial statistics, and is described here. In developed countries like the US and Japan, most people carry a cell phone when they go out. To stay operable, each cell phone is tracked by the closest cell tower so that it can remain connected to the wireless mobile network. A mobile phone network provider like NTT DoCoMo can identify each cell phone with its owner’s information, such as name, gender, age, home address, and current location. It is an invasion of privacy if such information is collected and used. However, if we simply detach this information from each individual identity, it is a valuable aid to providing necessary services and data for designing and altering social infrastructures and the distribution of goods.
DoCoMo provides two examples.
The first is that when the population of a city fluctuates, not all parts of the city lose or gain population equally. Currently, the only way to grasp the real movement of the population is to conduct a census. Even then, we can only understand the population spread statically, at people’s homes. In a typical day, people usually leave home in the morning for work or school, take a break for lunch, and go home after work or school. In other words, their movement is dynamic rather than static.
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With mobile spatial tracking, we could track the movement of people in a semi-real-time fashion and use that information for city design. If some parts of a city have a denser population at a specific time of the day, we might add special services to alleviate the concentration. For example, if it is too congested at certain bus stops at certain times, we might add more bus services or encourage different commute hours to alleviate the congestion. If a library becomes very crowded at certain hours, we could shift its opening and closing times to solve the congestion. If we can see how people actually move around, we can take the necessary actions to accommodate their movement. This was not possible before mobile spatial statistics (MSS) because we could not obtain such information in semi–real time before. Even the census is taken only every ten years, which makes it useless for MSS.
The second example is to provide appropriate helping hands in the case of disaster. Although Tokyo did not suffer major damage from the March earthquake and its aftershocks in the eastern part of Japan, all its public transportation, including trains, was stopped for an extended period. Because of this, many commuters congregated at and around train stations. As the transportation shutdown continued, food, water, shelter, communications, and other human necessities were running low. In hindsight, appropriate help was not rendered.
Although efforts were made to ease the situation, there was no precise way to tell how many people were at each station, how many of them were elderly, how many might have medical conditions to take care of, and so on. If such information had been available, more appropriate actions could have been taken.
I can think of many more applications. MSS makes needs visible in semi–real time. If we know the details of the needs, we can provide the necessary services and goods to accommodate them. Needs may change with time and location. If we know what they are at a certain location at a certain time, we can send appropriate supplies. Without MSS, we may waste supplies or fail to meet needs. MSS can be thought of as energy efficiency. ICT can be linked to MSS to find an optimal way to provide supplies to satisfy needs.
MSS has a lot of potential and can be applied in any developed country.