Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Let's Call Them What They Are: Enablers

There has been a good deal of discussion regarding a recent New York Times article, That's No Phone. That's My Tracker. The basis for the article is that today's mobile phones do not only make calls; they can also be used by government and businesses for "tracking" of individuals. As a result, the authors suggest that we should start calling them "phones" and start calling them "trackers" so that people "can fully understand them".

However, the authors' name choice itself is misleading, as it suggests that the only value of the location features of these devices is "tracking". The location functionality does much more. It is a powerful tool that can enhance its user's life in a variety of ways. For example, a out-of-town vacation was vastly improved by the location features of apps that help identify, review and provide turn-by-turn directions to nearby restaurants, shops and local events It also provided us an automatic warning of a potential tornado in the area. Citizens are beginning to use this functionality to report crime, graffiti, outages, and public nuisances to government officials As this BBC article on how entrepreneurs in Africa are using location points out, small businesses around the world can also use the functionality to benefit both the consumer and the business. An article in today's Wall Street Journal on productivity highlighted a similar cutting edge use of location technology by the company Uber to provide car service. In fact, we are just beginning to see the potential benefits that the location function of these devices offer.

There is no doubt, that the tracking features of mobile devices raise privacy concerns.  However, in the upcoming debate on what these concerns are and how they should be addressed, one must not lose sight of the many benefits that location-enabled mobile devices offer. Words matter. Calling these mobile devices "trackers" does not help individuals "fully understand them" as it minimizes the full value of location knowledge. Therefore, I suggest we begin calling them "enablers", as they are devices that will enable individuals, businesses and government agencies to maximize the value of location.  Some of these ways will have privacy implications and should be considered, and as needed, addressed. However, others will improve the quality of our lives in ways that we never imagined possible. 

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