Your Device: Your data. How to save your iPhone location data (and help researchers make the world a better place)

An hour ago, Apple announced that it has released a patch for iOS and iTunes, which reduces the size of the location cache stored on your machine, and prevents an automatic back-up through iTunes.

Good news, right?

I don’t think so. Apple is still collecting this data, still getting this data from you, and still using it. The only difference is that you can’t use your own data.

Location data is extremely useful. That’s why Apple, Google, and Microsoft are collecting it. Over the last year, Apple has, intentionally or not, created what is likely the largest locational database ever. This is a hugely, massively, ridiculously useful database. And with this new update, Apple are the only ones who will be able to get their hands on it. I believe that our data should be… well, our data. We should be able to store it securely, explore it, and use it for any purposes that we might choose.┬áThis data would be extraordinarily useful for researchers – people studying how diseases spread, trying to solve traffic-flow problems, and researching human mobility.

With all of this in mind, some colleagues and I have been working on a project for the last week called openpaths.cc. It lets you upload your location data from your iDevice, securely store it, explore it via a map interface, and we’ll eventually offer you a system to directly donate your data to well-deserving research projects.

We’re pushing this project out quickly in hopes that we can gather as many location files as we can before people upgrade iOS and iTunes.

Visit openpaths.cc now to upload, explore, and securely store your iDevice location data.

We are existing a world where data is being collected about us on a massive scale. This data is currently being stored, analyzed and monetized by corporations – there is little or no agency for the people to whom the data actually belongs. I believe that grass-roots initiatives like openpaths.cc can provide a framework for how data sovereignty can be established and managed.

In the short term, I am hoping we can collect and store enough locational data to be of use to researchers. So please, before you upgrade iOS and iTunes, visit openpaths.cc and make your own data your own data. And please (please) – pass this on.

8 thoughts on “Your Device: Your data. How to save your iPhone location data (and help researchers make the world a better place)”

  1. Great article – thanks. Does this lead towards 'data donation' in the same way we have organ donation now?

  2. Two things:
    1: the location cache was first reported in 2010 by a forensics researcher, not in April of this year
    2: it has been independently verified that this cache is not sent to Apple

    I'll leave it to you to research and verify these claims. I just get annoyed when people so confidently post misinformation.

    1. 1. We don't claim that the April announcement was the first time this has was discovered or reported. Only that in April researchers announced that they had discovered this cache. Which is true. 99% of people who are aware of this issue are aware of it because of that announcement.

      2. The local cache that we are using with openpaths is not being sent to Apple. However, location data from your phone is undoubtedly being sent to Apple on a semi-regular basis (at the very least to request this 'subset' of geolocated wifi hotspots that Apple says makes up the cached data). It may very well be that Apple is not storing or using this data, in which case I'd be pleased and surprised. Regardless, the issue is that these stored location files contain information that may be useful to both researchers and owners of these devices. The intent of openpaths is to make this kind of access easier.

      Thanks for your comment.

      -Jer

    2. 1. We don't claim that the April announcement was the first time this has was discovered or reported. Only that in April researchers announced that they had discovered this cache. Which is true. 99% of people who are aware of this issue are aware of it because of that announcement.2. The local cache that we are using with openpaths is not being sent to Apple. However, location data from your phone is undoubtedly being sent to Apple on a semi-regular basis (at the very least to request this 'subset' of geolocated wifi hotspots that Apple says makes up the cached data). It may very well be that Apple is not storing or using this data, in which case I'd be pleased and surprised. Regardless, the issue is that these stored location files contain information that may be useful to both researchers and owners of these devices. The intent of openpaths is to make this kind of access easier.Thanks for your comment.-Jer

  3. Hi Jer, you told us about this project at your Processing workshop in Newcastle recently. At the time I remember thinking how wonderful it would be if it could also accept KML files. As a Latitude user I’ve been sharing and storing my location for quite some time now. At least Google are happy for me to access my data and to share it.

    Any chance that feature will come?

  4. Hi Jer,

    OpenPaths is fantastic! I remember when I got my first GSM phone and switched on the Cell Name function, or whatever it's called; the one that displays the reported cell name on the stand-by screen of the phone next to the time display or similar. Anyway, I thought, hey this is cool, perhaps I could log these cell names some how and then plot the locations as it'd be interesting to look back at a year and see what kind distance I tend to cover and even to remember fun trips and so on.

    Then later on when I got my first GPS car navigator, I found it had an app' that allow one to log all one's movement, at least while using it in the car and crudely map them. However, I didn't bother as it wasn't the same as the mobile phone idea, I didn't always have the Navigator on me and therefore the data wasn't as interesting. Nor was the display of that data very elegantly resolved. [please see my next comment for the rest of this]

  5. [continued from above] OpenPaths on the other hand is almost exactly what I had in mind, but with the added possibility of sharing one's data with researchers if one chooses. It really looks excellent and I'd love to give it a try, though I don't currently have an iPhone… the home page leads me to believe perhaps other devices could be used? Ah, the FAQ mentions Android as well, my next phone will run Android for sure!

    So, that's my thoughts on the positives of geolocated data logs. The negative for me is as you've described, but I would add: I do get some comfort from the fact that one person's data in a sea of such data is unlikely to be of much interest. Of course, yes, if one does something particularly interesting and becomes a “person of interest” to any particular authority or organisation, then serious concern over privacy apply.

    Just imagine what paparazzi would do for certain celebs second by second location data?

    Thanks again Jer,

    Mal

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