The idea that phones should have sensors is far from outlandish. Phones already incorporate primitive versions, including the sensor that picks up the cellular signal, light sensors that dim the keyboard and acceleration sensors that notice when the user lifts the phone to his ear. “Today, everybody can look at his phone and say how many signal bars he has,” says Eric Paulos, a researcher at Intel, the world’s largest chipmaker. “In a few years, everybody will look at his phone and see what the pollen count is.” Mr Paulos runs a project on “participatory urbanism” for Intel, which explores exactly how sensors inside mobile phones might improve society. He recently conducted a study in Ghana, where he attached tiny pollution sensors to the phones of 15 taxi drivers. Using the data—the amount of pollution at specific times of day in places where the taxis went—Mr Paulos’s team drew up a pollution map of the city which revealed surprising patterns in particular roads. Some of the taxi drivers changed their routes as a result. Carbon monoxide, ozone, pollen, sun intensity and temperature are among the things that Mr Paulos considers particularly easy to measure by tweaking mobile phones in ways that consumers would not even notice. Any such data would need to be collected in a discreet way to assure the privacy of consumers. But eventually, thinks Mr Paulos, this new twist to the everyday mobility of ordinary people could lead to “grassroots citizen science”.

Six years ago, charting the future of mobile phones A world of witnesses | The Economist
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