From Pokemon to Podcasts, Location Matters
Stories that have been linked to location, in one way or another, have dominated the headlines lately.
Following the news that Adnan Syed, subject of the record-setting Serial podcast, was to face a retrial for the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee, the internet exploded with discussions of the case. As avid followers of the series will know, much of Syed’s appeal will centre on the cell-tower location data used to place Syed within the general location of Lee’s murder, which his attorney argued may be inaccurate and misleading.
Location data at the time of Syed’s conviction was still a developing technology, and had rarely been used in a courtroom, meaning that its interpretation was subject to much confusion and potential inaccuracy.
His appeal now hinges partly on the discovery of a cover sheet from AT&T for a fax of Syed’s phone records that has been unearthed, warning that: “Outgoing calls are reliable for location status. Any incoming calls will NOT be considered reliable information.” The absence of this information in Syed’s original hearing, coupled with the fact that the technology was in its infancy, undoubtedly impacted the trial and millions await to see if viewing the location data in 2016 will produce a different result than its interpretation over 15 years ago.
Fast-forward to today, and the most advanced location data technology is capable of pinpointing a location to within five meters; a dramatic improvement on the level of accuracy possible at the time of Syed’s conviction. However, inaccuracy is still rife. Within the advertising industry for example, up to 90 percent of GPS latitude/longitude data from publishers is inaccurate or false, meaning that adtech providers must put practices in places to verify the data further.
The importance of accurate location data has recently become particularly important to two individuals besides Syed: Boom Sheridan from Holyoke Massachusetts, and Joyce Taylor from Kansas. While neither has the fame of Syed, they have both found themselves disadvantaged as a result of inaccurate location data.
As the owner of a farm in the north of the state, 82-year old Taylor and her tenants have been subject to FBI visits, ambulances, threats, online exposure and IRS collectors, thanks to a company called MaxMind. Claiming to offer “industry leading IP intelligence,” MaxMind collected as many unique computer or smartphone IP addresses as they could, matched them to a map and sold the data to advertisers.
Unfortunately for Taylor, MaxMind decided that if it couldn’t tell exactly where in the US an IP address was located, it would return a default set of coordinates close to the centre of the country, which happened to coincide with Taylor’s front garden. This process resulted in over 600 million IP addresses showing as belonging to Taylor’s farm, accidentally routing vast amounts of unwanted traffic her way.
For Sheridan, as the world succumbed to Pokemon Go Mania, he suddenly found himself inundated with players outside his house, thanks to the fact that the converted church he lives in has been signed off by maker Niantic as one of the game’s gyms. While Sheridan initially seemed to take the mistake well, and even noted that he had experienced “nowhere near the level of shenanigans” that Taylor had been subject to, he recently tweeted: ‘Do I even have rights when it comes to a virtual location imposed on me? Businesses have expectations, but this is my home.”
Although these are undoubtedly extreme cases, they highlight just how important the accuracy of mobile location data can be. While most of us fortunately are unlikely to find ourselves in a similar position to Syed, Sheridan or Taylor, inaccurate location data can still have a negative impact on our lives, causing us to receive unwanted spam from advertisers.
This in turn is driving disengagement, resulting in a surge in ad blockers, and is depriving consumers from information that may be interesting and relevant to them. Location data technology has evolved enormously in the 17 years since Syed’s trial, but the examples of Joyce and Sheridan highlight some of the wider problems that still exist today. Location really does matter, and the sooner the industry recognises this, the better.
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Tags: Adnan Syed, Andrew Darling, Boom Sheridan, Engadget, Joyce Taylor, Location data, MaxMind, Podcast, Pokemon, Serial