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Thursday, March 4, 2010

Participatory Sensing: Using Smartphones and Cloud Computing to better our lives

According to a recent Gartner report, in 2009 Worldwide smartphone users grew 24% while non-smartphone mobile users decreased 4%. Many of us are now using smartphones for various applications: landline phone replacement, email, address books, calendars, GPS, MP3 players, cameras, Mobile Internet and various other Apps. The power of these devices come from the advancement in hardware technology and the various mobile Applications that can be easily downloaded with simple key strokes. However, these devices are very limited as stand-alone devices, unless they connect and communicate with more powerful remote servers over wireless broadband. This model, where both the data storage and the data processing happen outside of the mobile device from which an application is launched is referred to as mobile cloud computing.

Mobile cloud computing is becoming even more critical because of a relatively new trend called Participatory Sensing. Participatory sensing is where communities use mobile phone to gather data for things that are important to them. The content is recorded as audio, video or data received from a GPS, accelerometer or other mobile phone sensors. It is then geo-tagged and can be automatically updated to web servers where they are catalogued and analyzed by software designed for a given participatory sensing project. Such analysis can give us intelligent information beyond what we can do today.

The major driving force behind Participatory sensing is “Crowdsourcing” data mining. Crowdsourcing is the act of taking a job traditionally performed by employees or contractors of an organization and outsourcing it to public, sometimes passively. For example, for people with GPS enabled handsets with Google MAPS loaded already contribute to the cause. As long as they allow the app to share presence information, location and speed data are being sent to Google and turned into usable information. This constant update allow Google to provide traffic information for everyone.

Scholars and researchers from many places around the world are working on such projects. I recently heard from two such scientists while listening to NPR’s Talk of the Nation on Science Friday. On the program were: Tom Michell, Machine Learning Department, Carnegie Mellon University and Debra Estrin, Embedded Network Sensing, University of California Los Angeles. They described various things including; GPS/traffic information as mentioned above; monitoring air pollution (via video visibility) all over the city; providing better health care to patients; locating invasive plants in participating park; monitoring community-wide epidemiology; monitoring individual high blood pressure, diabetes, or antidepressants; and so on.

Smartphones have many built-in “senses”. All phones by definition have a microphone, which is an audio sensor. Most have a camera, a visual sensor. An increasing number have a GPS, an accelerometer, a compass, a proximity sensor and an ambient light sensor—all of which enhance the user experience, extend battery life. An accelerometer detects rotation, tilt and vibrations. The proximity sensor detects when you lift the phone to your ear and immediately turns off the display to save power and prevent inadvertent touches. The ambient light sensor automatically adjusts the display’s brightness based on the current ambient light, in order to enhance the user experience and save power at the same time. With hardware and software advances, there is no doubt that this collection of sensors will only become richer. For example, future smartphones phones may include temperature, pressure or air quality sensors.

Today, there are already some good examples of mobile cloud computing applications including email, mobile banking, social networking and various navigation apps. However, as more ‘sensing’ data is collected, geo-tagged and stored on the network, the need for processor capacity, storage and software intelligence to analyze and correlate this data will significantly increase. It is a great time to be in the communications and IT business.... these worlds are converging. This is just the beginning.