Liz Gannes

Recent Posts by Liz Gannes

After Waze, What Else Can Mobile Crowdsourcing Do?

Google spent $1.1 billion to buy the mapping startup Waze last month, a deal that the Federal Trade Commission is still investigating.

And while Google won’t be swapping out its flagship Google Maps in favor of its sassy new step-sibling Waze anytime soon, one thing is certain: The jumbo acquisition is a clear validation of mobile crowdsourcing.

That’s because Waze’s mapping and traffic information are built off the contributions of 70,000 volunteer map editors and some 15 million active users, who contribute their live driving data by default, so others can benefit by seeing how fast they are going.

Given the increasing number of people who carry smartphones in their pocket, it seems likely other services could be built on the back of willing users who contribute a little bit of data from wherever they are so it can be mapped and analyzed for the common good.

And indeed, since the deal was announced, my inbox doth overflow with “We’re the Waze for [fill in the blank]” pitches — including three of them for mobile weather apps: Weathermob, Minutely and WeatherSignal.

While there don’t seem to be any Waze-sized opportunities obviously lurking, there do seem to be useful little twists on the idea — for instance, multiple public transit apps already incorporate user reports, like HopStop and Moovit.

And don’t forget Ushahidi, the nonprofit that provides tools for organizations to incorporate citizen reports from out in the field of things like disaster recovery needs and election fraud. There are also smaller efforts, such as a nonprofit called Rainforest Connection that’s planning to install used Android phones in rain forests to detect the sounds of chainsaws used in illegal logging.

OpenSignal maps cell coverage based on users' mobile submissions.

OpenSignal maps cell coverage based on users’ mobile submissions.

Plus, there are some more out-there startups trying to do massive user-driven surveillance networks, where people set up old smartphones with power sources and Wi-Fi to create video feeds that can be analyzed for the common good. Why? To help others find parking spots, show when a park is crowded or depict how bad traffic is on a nearby freeway off-ramp. I’ve written about Koozoo, and there’s another one that sounds quite similar called Placemeter.

But what about something that’s useful today? OpenSignal, for instance, helps users map cell coverage and find Wi-Fi hotspots.

Based in London, two-year-old OpenSignal’s app of the same name has been downloaded 3.7 million times and has about 700,000 active users. It works best on Google’s Android (which gives developers deeper access and allows for background data collection), but is available on Apple’s iOS as well.

“Bad signal is a problem that everyone in the world faces,” said OpenSignal company evangelist Samuel Johnston in an interview. “We give users the benefit of finding free Wi-Fi and doing speed tests, but we also feed back that data to them. It’s not just benefiting some anonymous corporation.”

(Or, you could use OpenSignal to find places where there’s no cell coverage, in search of respite from the digital grind, as Pinterest co-founder Evan Sharp reportedly does.)

OpenSignal has raised $1.3 million from O’Reilly AlphaTech Ventures, Passion Capital and Qualcomm Ventures. Johnston said the company plans to make money by selling its crowdsourced coverage maps to carriers, but it hasn’t cut any deals yet. Its competition includes Sensorly and Rootmetrics.

The five-member OpenSignal team also just released a companion weather crowdsourcing Android app, WeatherSignal, as a hackathon project. It has been downloaded 70,000 times.

One interesting note is that phone thermometers tend to measure temperature inaccurately, given they run so hot when they’re charging or being actively used. But OpenSignal engineers think they’ve come up with an algorithm to translate phone battery temperature into ambient temperature, when they combine data for a bunch of users. They’re currently trying to get this published in an academic journal.

OpenSignal’s WeatherSignal may be new, but there are other crowdsourced weather apps. They tend to rely on user reports from a toggle menu of variations on sun, rain, fog and snow — given that smartphones can’t detect that with their own sensors as yet. When more cellphones have thermometers and barometric pressure sensors, they’ll use those, too.

In the absence of good sensor data from phones, WeatherMob asks users to post location-tagged weather status updates.

In the absence of good sensor data from phones, Weathermob asks users to post location-tagged weather status updates.

This week, Weathermob, which makes an iOS weather app with more than 100,000 monthly active users, said it had raised a total of $1.1 million in angel funding from Mark Hastings, Lord Waheed Alli, Victoria Hackett and Drew Volpe.

The app is basically a social network for weather status messages, where users contribute reports like “It is ‘sunnyish.’ I am ‘dandy.’ It’s weather for ‘popsicles.’”

Another new crowdsourced weather app called Minutely, made by a company called Ourcast, builds 3-D models of storms that combine radar from above and crowdsourced reports from the ground to create what it says are highly accurate forecasts for the ensuing two hours.

It’s available on iOS now and supposed to come to Android by the end of the month. Ourcast also has seed funding, to the tune of $1.3 million.

Without sensors to verify local weather — as Waze does for moving speed — it seems to me as though anecdotal citizen reports wouldn’t be that useful. Ourcast CEO Justin Re disagreed. ”We use 3-D modeling of the whole storm system to improve the accuracy of our predictions,” he said. “But even with that, crowdsourcing is the vital component for building the most accurate predictions.”

While this is all interesting, surely we can get further out of the mobile crowdsourcing box than everyday stuff like transit, disasters, surveillance, cell coverage and weather.

Here’s a fun one: The Cicada Hunt app listens for the high frequency sounds of cicadas in the wild. Hikers can submit sound recordings to send to researchers in the U.K. who are looking for a rare species of cicada.

It’s kind of like Shazam for bugs.


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