Secret army base forgets to turn off location services

Guy Garside

You may have seen an amusing news story recently about US soldiers inadvertently giving away the location of military bases in Syria through their use of the fitness app, Strava. The story came out after an Australian student did some analysis on Strava’s updated online heatmap which brilliantly visualises all app activity worldwide.

The heatmap is very interesting, I recommend checking it out. In the UK, the map shows a concentration of go-getters running/cycling around London and the Home Counties as you might expect. My homeland of East Anglia looks rather dark in comparison, with the exception of glamourous Norwich.

This is actually something we’ve been thinking about for a while – not the location of US military bases – but the insights you can gain from wearable technology and apps. We’ve recently built a plugin that syncs Fitbit data with our online research tool, e-luminate, which we tested out with BB volunteers to track their January fitness regimes.The use of smartphones, wearables and apps means there is more accurate behavioural data being collected than ever before. As researchers, this can give us an unprecedented insight into the people’s lifestyles. This user-generated data may also be more accurate. E.g., if you asked me how much money I spent in December and how much exercise I did in January, I might not give you an accurate answer but I may have recorded all of this onto my smartphone.

There are of course limitations with this approach – you’re restricted to those using the apps, and within that, who’s posting publicly or willing to share their data with you. Also, this is only one representation of someone’s life. You face the same challenges in social media research – are you only seeing one side of someone? At the MRS Social Media Summit earlier this year I heard some fascinating perspectives on how people represent themselves online and what that means for researchers. People have multiple versions of themselves both on- and offline and this can, for example, affect how they interact with brands and what they choose to buy.

But as with any new research approach it can complement what we already do, and doesn’t need to replace it. E.g. in our eye tracking research we do a follow-up depth interview to give context to all the data. If you were researching someone’s lifestyle, you need more than just a chart that says how many steps they do per day; you have to understand the ‘how’ and the ‘why’. But by combining the different data sources you get the full picture and a clearer understanding.

And once we have the understanding, it’s still up to us to provide the ‘so what?’ and turn this into action for our clients by delivering clear, unambiguous recommendations. Whatever new technologies and innovations we integrate into our research, this always remains the same!