Are we more than the sum of our data?

Amedeo & Golledge – Environmental Perception and Behavioural Geography

Although the subject matter is neutralized by Amedeo & Golledge’s academic tone, the underlying theme of this article is very unsettling. Being able to predict another’s behaviour is a strategic victory. If one can expect a certain response from an individual based on environmental (social and physical) conditions, their behaviour becomes an exploitable resource. For emergency scenarios this could drastically change the outcome of natural disasters. Imagine being able to predict the evacuation of a city following an earthquake. One may be able to predict the likely location of survivors based on escape route. For an individual example, consider how this may aid missing persons cases. There are many situations in which Environmental Perception and Behavioural Geography (EPBG) could positively affect society.

Unfortunately, there may be equally as many insidious applications of EPBG research. These applications may be less exciting but will become more pervasive in daily life. In GEOG 307 one of our assignments entailed finding the ideal location for a high-end audio store in Montreal. By using the generic profile of audiophiles (Male, late 20s-40s, annual income: 80 000+) and combining this knowledge with census data, we were able to find the hypothetical best intersection for this store. This application of geo-marketing was fixed in place as were the targeted demographic. Now imagine the possibilities of knowing your target individual’s path between home and work, their spending habits, and their favourite places to hangout, etc. This has and will continue to transform advertising and marketing campaigns. Now, through data fusion, you may come to learn what political sentiments they hold, the religion they practice, their sexual orientation, etc. I believe most people would find the disclosure of latter list of attributes unsettling to those other than their family and friends. We recognize that these are potentially vulnerable attributes about ourselves and we certainly do not want to be exploited through these traits. However, the reality is we are increasingly revealing these personal qualities directly, indirectly, voluntarily, and involuntarily. We are becoming more vulnerable to corporations and governments. I for one think we need to revaluate the information we share on the web and continue the debate about the ethical treatment of our personal data.

Amedeo & Golledge write that it is an important question to ask what constitutes an environment. I think it’s more important to ask what constitutes an individual.


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