Information Commissioner’s Office on mobile location analytics

Heritage sites experimenting with MLA take note. The ICO yesterday released a blog post addressing the potential danger to privacy of Mobile Location Analytics and, incidentally, Intelligent Video Analytics. Simon Rice, Group Manager for Technology, who also sits on the International Working Group on Data Protection in Telecommunications, says “Here at the ICO, we’re interested in Wi-Fi location tracking because it could involve the use of personal data. This means it falls under the Data Protection Act and that’s where we come in. […] The use of this type of technology is not just confined to the retail environment – airports, railway stations and even city-wide Wi-Fi networks could use it to monitor individuals. […] Therefore the working group has written a list of recommendations for use of the technology.”

The working paper itself is worth a read, and definitely more balanced than some newspaper coverage (as usual). It makes many references to checking out what you are planning against the local legislation wherever you are working, but also recommends seven safeguards that should be built into your work (and which, I imaging will be built into legislation over time):

  1. Notification to individuals – Organisations must ensure that there is sufficient information, including a range of physical and digital signage, to clearly inform individuals that location technology is in operation. The information must clearly state the purpose for collection and identify the organisation responsible. It is recommended that the industry develop a standard symbol which can be distributed throughout an area to remind individuals that the technology is in operation, similar to the effect from CCTV signage. Specific consideration must be given to staff, employees or other individuals who, if not excluded from the tracking, may be subject to extensive data collection;
  2. Limiting the bounds of data collection – Collection should only take place once the
    individual has been suitably informed and organisations must not seek to collect and
    monitor outside their premises. This can be achieved through careful placement of receivers, limiting data collection through a sampling method and to specified time periods or times of day (e.g., during store opening hours). The frequency of collection
    should also be limited to that which supports the specified purpose. The use of airgaps to create a non-contiguous data collection area and ensuring that collection only takes place in areas which are relevant to the specified purpose should also reduce the risk of privacy intrusion. Organisations should also seek to identify “privacy zones” where no tracking can take place as a result of technical or physical measures. This can be important in areas which have particular sensitivity such as toilets or rooms set aside for first-aid or worship. In jurisdictions where tracking outside of the organisation’s premises can be carried out in compliance with the law, sufficient safeguards should be in place to protect individuals’ privacy;
  3. Anonymise data without delay – Organisations should seek to delete or anonymise
    data as soon as the data is no longer required in its original form;
  4. Appropriate retention of individual level data – In cases where there is a clear legal
    basis for the processing of personal data, organisations should apply methods to
    convert unique identifiers, such as MAC addresses, into a form which reduces the potential for privacy intrusion. For example, if the identification of repeat visits is not envisaged then pseudonymising the identifier would prevent this possibility yet still provide sufficient analytics of daily footfall and routes taken. At the end of the legally
    permissible retention period, the relevant data should be anonymised or securely destroyed. An analysis comparing events over multiple reporting periods (e.g., percentage change in visitors in a given period of time) can be performed by comparing individual period aggregates;
  5. Consent for the combination with other information – Individuals should be fully
    informed when location data is intended to be combined with other information such
    as transaction history. This is especially relevant when location tracking is added as a
    feature to an existing loyalty scheme, for example, adding BLE beacon functionality to
    an existing retailer’s smart phone app. The user’s acceptance of an update via the
    app store is unlikely to be sufficient to qualify as being fully informed. Legislation in
    some jurisdictions may also require explicit consent for certain types of personal
  6. Consent for the sharing of individually identifiable data with third parties – Organisations should not share data which could be used to identify an individual with
    third parties without the valid informed consent of the individual concerned (this would include sharing data with other clients of a single third-party location analytics provider) unless there is a lawful exception; and
  7. Implement a simple and effective means to control collection – Organisations
    should also establish a system which allows individuals to control the collection of
    such data even in cases where this is not explicitly required by applicable privacy legislation. Organizations should prominently display the existence of choice and control options in the area of data collection. This should include an easily accessible, clearly communicated and effective means to exert control. It is recommended that a single mechanism be supported by all operators of location analytics services such that an individual is only required to express their preference once. If the tracking is based on informed consent then individuals must be enabled to revoke their consent in an easy and persistent manner. Where technically possible, clear audit trails allowing end users to know when and for what purpose data has been collected about their devices and by whom would also be recommended. Users should also be enabled to delete all or part of the previously collected data.

Cultural Agents

I’ve been reading Eric Champion’s Critical Gaming: Interactive history and virtual heritage. Eric asked his publishers to send me a review copy, but none was forthcoming, and I can’t wait for the library to get hold of a copy – I think I was to quote it in a paper I’m proposing –  so I splashed out on the Kindle edition. I think of it as a late birthday present to myself, and I’m not disappointed.

One thing that has struck me so far is a little thing (its a word Champion uses only three times) but it seems so useful I’m surprised it isn’t used more widely, especially in the heritage interpretation context. That word is “multimodality”. As Wikipedia says (today at least) “Multimodality describes communication practices in terms of the textual, aural, linguistic, spatial, and visual resources – or modes – used to compose messages.” But its not just about multimedia, “mode” involves social and cultural making of meaning as well. Champion says:

Multimodality can help to provide multiple narratives and different types of evidence. Narrative fragments can be threaded and buried through an environment, coaxing people to explore, reflect and integrate their personal exploration into what they have uncovered.

Which is surely what all curated cultural heritage spaces are trying to achieve, isn’t it? (Some with more success than others, I’ll admit.) Champion is referring to the multimodality of games and virtual environments, but it strikes me that museums and heritage sites are inherently multi-modal.

It sent me off looking for specific references to multimodality in museums and heritage sites, and indeed, I found a few, this working paper for example, and this blog, but there are not many.

But I digress. I’ve started Eric’s book with Chapter 8 (all the best readers start in the middle) Intelligent Agents, Drama and Cinematic Narrative, in which he examines various pre-digital theories of drama (Aristotle’s Poetics, Propp’s Formalism (with a nod in the direction of Bartle and Yee) and Campbell’s monomyth), before crunching the gears to explore decidedly-digital intelligent agents as dramatic characters. Along the way, he touches upon “storyspaces” – the virtual worlds of games which are by necessity incomplete, yet create an illusion of completeness.

His argument is that there is a need for what he calls “Cultural Agents” representing, recognising, adding to, or transmitting cultural behaviours. Such agents would be programmed to demonstrate the “correct cultural behaviors given specific event or situations” and recognise correct (and incorrect!) cultural behaviours. For example, I’m imagining here characters in an Elizabethan game that greet you or other agents in the game with a bow of the correct depth for each other’s relative ranks, and admonishes you if (in a virtual reality sim) you don’t bow low enough when the Queen walks by.

Which leads on to what he calls the “Cultural Turing Test […] in order to satisfy the NPCs [non-player characters] that the players is a ‘local’, the player has to satisfy questions and perform like the actual local characters (the scripted NPCs). Hence, the player has to observe and mimic these artificial agents for fear of being discovered.” (As he points out, this is in fact a reversal of the Turing test.)

Then he shifts gear again to look at Machinema (the creation of short films using game engines, which I learned about back in Rochester) as a method for users to reflect on their experience in-game, and edit it into an interpretation of the culture the game was designed to explore. Its a worthy suggestion, and could be excellent practice in formal learning, but I fear it undermines the game-play itself, if it becomes a requirement of the player to edit their virtual experiences before comprehending them as a coherent narrative.

Also in all though, I can already see that the book will be an enjoyable and rewarding read.


Creating a design document: part 2

More time than I’d like has passed since I started creating my design document. In my last post on the subject, I described how a recital I’d seen could be broken down into “Natoms” or Narrative Atoms. The recital itself was constructed to create a story by putting these natoms into an emotionally engaging order.

Now imagine that we want to use the same research to create an exhibition in a museum, or tell a similar story to people visiting a country house.  Last time I introduced the idea that the natoms could be all sorts of different media: “documents (which could be original or images); portraits (ditto); text (spoken in this case, but it could be printed); sound (live music in this case, but it could be recordings); and even original instruments.” This list can be divided into two types: physical media – objects, and maybe in an historic environment (rather than a museum gallery) the spaces themselves; and, “ephemeral” media – video, audio, text etc, which can be delivered to the access points on demand. I use the word ephemeral because the physical stuff is by definition in a located in a particular place and (generally) doesn’t move around. By the other media can be delivered to visitors wherever the visitors are. A fundamental difference between this concept and traditional interpretation design, is that text panels cease to be permanent objects in the gallery, letting the collection take pride of place. But the ephemeral stuff is not necessarily less important than the physical stuff, as Cohen and Shires pointed out, the only thing that distinguishes kernels from satellites is that the kernals have come in a certain order.

click to enlarge
click to enlarge

In the diagram (above) I’ve separated out the physical natoms (spaces and objects) from the ephemeral ones (indicated by the cloud box), but I think I may have been mistaken by making all the kernels ephemeral natoms. There could well be “wow” objects, that curators place at the very start of an exhibition, to make sure that everyone sees it at they enter. This would obviously be  the first Kernel, and maybe a should redo the diagram to show that possibility. Alternatively, curators can put a wow object at the end of an exhibition, for example at the brilliant Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibition at the British Museum,  but in fact this is more difficult to do in many free-flow historical environments, so maybe I won’t show that case in the diagram (or maybe I’ll create different diagrams for different curatorial audiences).

What I’m trying to show in the diagram is that there is at least one ephemeral natom for each physical one, for example a catalogue entry, but there may be more – maybe a recording of music being played on an instrument on display, for example. That piece of music may have a specific place in the narrative, making it a kernal. Giving a very simple, broad-brush example, it may in be a minor key, a “sad song” if you will, and works very well in the narrative when we’d like the audience to reflect on the death of protagonist. The object itself may, or may not have a specific place in the narrative. Lets assume it doesn’t.

Now imagine our visitor wonders over to look at the object. The system knows what natoms have been delivered to the visitor at this point, and has a choice: it can let the instrument stand on its own, as a thing of beauty, remember, it is in itself a natom; or it can measure the time the visitor pauses by the object, which indicates a particular interested in it, and deliver (via an e-ink panel say) the catalogue entry; OR it can note that the visitor has recently been told about the death of the protagonist, and so the plays the “sad song”, which, for another visitor who has not yet heard the death story, it holds in reserve until later in the experience.

This isn’t meant to remove all control from the the visitor, who may well have the ability to trigger the music (or another piece) even if the system chooses not to deliver it until later. Indeed, if the visitor goes around triggering every bit of music, a sophisticated version of this system should be able to background the social story, in favour of a more musicological one. Rather, its an acknowledgement that the visitor already takes control of the experience by moving around the spaces, and offers a more flexible way for the curator to tell an emotionally engaging narrative by defining the kernels of the story.

Does that make sense?

V&A collecting wearable tech

A colleague sent me a link to this post, from Corinna Gardner,  curator of product design at the V&A. They have just acquired an ugly, but important piece of wearable technology. As she says:

Whether or not we own a Nike Fuelband or Jawbone UP, or even if they are only a fad, wearable technologies are a reality for thousands of people every day. The WT4000 is the flipside of the extreme efficiency we so enjoy when ordering a book for next day delivery or our groceries selected, packed and delivered to our doorstep.

Roxanne, you don’t have to pull out your Bluetooth phone

[Yes, this post may seem familiar to long time readers. I’ve edited it and reposted it because, a) its a good post, and deserves to be read; and, b) I’m submitting this version for publication. Forgive my hubris.]

An augmented reality app available for download before visiting the Royal Museums, Greenwich (photo, Matthew Tyler-Jones)
An augmented reality app available for download before visiting the Royal Museums, Greenwich (photo, Matthew Tyler-Jones)

Lets cut to the chase. There are a LOT of companies out there selling (or trying to sell) smartphone based apps for visitors on site. The allure of mobile apps is difficult to deny. The museum/heritage site doesn’t have to lease expensive proprietary technology, dedicate space to storing and charging the same, or have infrastructure/staffing in place to hand out and collect these expensive bits of tech. Not only that, if everybody is bringing a screen with them, the museum can save money on screens around to the galleries to display video. Those little screens can be used to augment reality. They can adapt to offer everything from simple kids trails to in-depth information. Audio can be piped directly to the visitor’s ears, without speakers and ambient music adding noise pollution to the list of things that irritate other visitors.

And surely most enticing of all, the museum can make use of archives, oral histories and content that there simply wouldn’t be space for, in the physical realm. Without having to spend on the hardware, cultural heritage sites can invest in putting their hidden stories, collections and archives into user’s hands, creating compelling content.

But is mobile content that compelling?

I’m not denying that some people want to use a smartphone (or Google Glass) to enable a better understanding of a place. But I am saying the majority of visitors really don’t want to use a smartphone or any other mobile device when they are on site. And why would they? They have travelled to, and are immersed in one of the most significant/beautiful/interesting places they know. Why would they want to look at any part of it through a four (or five, or six, or nine) inch screen?

It turns out that smartphones (and tablets, but from now on, just read “mobile devices” when I write “smartphones”, or even “phones”) are not seen by their users as a cheap and personal way for people to interact with the space they are in. Look around you, wherever you are reading this. If you are on a train or bus, you’ll see people passing time reading, watching or playing with their phones. If the conversation is flagging in a social situation it may be that people have their phones out and are checking twitter or Facebook. They are using their phones to transport themselves away from the place they are in.

From the moment Alexander Graham Bell said “Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you” phones have always been a method of teleportation – into the next room in Bell’s case, but nowadays back to our homes or places of work, closer to absent friends, around the globe, and even into virtual worlds. Even the act of taking a photograph (which some might argue is an interaction with your surroundings) is an act of transportation, whether it’s to your friends’ sides as you Tweet the image, or back to your home where you are already in the future, remembering this scene.

There’s nothing wrong with using your phone to remove yourself from a space of course. This isn’t a rant against mobile devices. I have no problem with people using their phones at concerts (which seems to fill some others with irrational hatred), or at cultural heritage sites, if they want to take a photograph or remove themselves to the great reference library that is the internet, or to tell a friend what a great time they are having. But lets make no bones about it, when a visitor to a site uses a phone, even if its to hear Stephen Fry (or some equally capable voice talent) tell them a story about the place, they are removing themselves from their surroundings*.

And most people don’t want that. They have come to this place (they may even have used their phones to help transport them to this place – with on-line bookings or GPS route-finding) to be in the place.

So why do we offer them an app on a device that transports them away? Because of the interactivity? The ability to chose what you want to read about, listen to, or watch? Even the most passive visitor interacts with a place simply by choosing how to wander around it. Our visitors are making choices all the time. Their day is full of choices. Very, very rarely do we ever get feedback from a visitor along the lines of “I really wanted to make more decisions.”

The interactivity is inherent in the cultural heritage visit. Museums shouldn’t need to spend money on technology to make the visit more interactive, what they need to work on is making the place more responsive.

So when the phone user does want to take his phone out to look something up, a responsive site makes it easy for him (or her) to connect to the internet, to find the information s/he needs (however unpredictable his/her needs may be) and to download it. Custom apps for smartphones are sold to heritage sites for tens of thousands of pounds. It would surely cost a lot less simply to make sure there’s a pervasive wifi signal and a pointer to the place’s website and/or on-line catalogue.

Once that’s in place, then we can build something that works with visitors’ phone to enable the site to be even more responsive, while keeping the visitors firmly immersed in the place, and their phones in their pockets:

A phone regularly sends out a little signal that says “I’m this phone and I’m here.” Recent developments in Bluetooth LE only add granularity to that message. It only take’s the visitor’s consent and the site’s IT infrastructure to turn the signal into “I’m this visitor, and this is where I’ve been.” And that information enables the site to be far more responsive, relevant, to understand the visitor’s interests, to make connections with what they’ve already seen, to tell better stories.

To better connect the visitor with the place.

Which is what we’re all here for, isn’t it?

*There’s some strength in the argument that an audio tour is better at not getting between the visitor and what they are looking at – if only because our ears are behind our eyes, so with headphones on it always sounds like Stephen Fry (or whoever the presenter might be) is standing just behind your shoulder.

Mobile Location Analytics doesn’t go down well in Hyde Park

Just a short note, linking to an article I read (on Christmas Day apparently) about using mobile phone data to analyse crowd movement in Hyde Park. This wasn’t real time, but based on historical data from provider EE. The comments suggest many think of it as an invasion of privacy, despite being anonymous and not real time. It suggests that they could be popular resistance to heritage sites using the technology, especially if using it in real time. 

Alternatively, Dr Suzy Moat, in Jim Al-khalili’s radio programme, Putting Science to Work, made the case for using mobile photo data to monitor crowd movements and save lives by preventing panic/crush disasters such as Hillsborough, and those that that occurred in Mecca during the Hadj. 

So I’m not discouraged from experimenting with the technology and testing users’ reactions to the privacy/benefit equation. 

Music in Interpretation

Jeanice asked me before Christmas about academic study of how music impacts heritage interpretation. My first response was “there is none” (and I stand by that), but it did make me dig out a couple of papers that I’d found and not included in my literature review. And on reflection, I think I may indeed go back an add one of them in.

The first was Musical Technology and the Interpretation of Heritage, a conference keynote speech given by Keith Swanwick, and published in 2001 by the International Journal of Music Education. That there publication is the clue that this isn’t really about heritage interpretation (as I’m defining it) at all, but rather about cultural transmission through music, and especially through music teaching. I left it in my notes because it references information and digital technology but, re-reading it for Jeanice, I realise it doesn’t do anything with that reference, apart from equating music itself with ICT as a mode of cultural transmission.

There’s some discussion of compositions created with cultural transmission as an intent, which may be interesting for some later study, but it doesn’t give the overview of music as museum/cultural heritage-site media that the title promised.

More interesting is this paper, from the V&A’s on-line research journal. The paper explores the development of a collaborative project between the Royal College of Music and the V&A, involving new recordings of period music for the Medieval & Renaissance Galleries. The first thing that strikes me is that the galleries opened in 2009, and yet the project was conceived in 2002. Sometimes I wish I worked for an organisation that gave such projects a similar about of time to gestate.

Drawing on all their front end evaluation, and the debates on learning styles and segmentation that have taken place over the years, the Medieval & Renaissance Galleries team were keen to offer visitors a “multi-sensory framework […] incorporating opportunities for tactile experience, active hands-on learning and varied strategies for helping visitors to decode medieval and Renaissance art actively.” This included audio as well as film and other digital media.

This is where the quote that, on reflection, I think I should at the very least include in my literature review. It comes from a footnote, and usefully sums up my fruitless search for literature on music in cultural heritage sites:

Music in museums has not been the focus of detailed study or writing.

The article goes on to round up various ways in which music is used in (general, not museums of music) interpretation, for example, places where popular music of the twentieth century is used to help immerse visitors in a particular decade. Of particular interest is The Book of the Dead: Journey to the Afterlife, a British Museum exhibition for which, “…a musical soundtrack was commissioned to heighten emotional effect at a key moment in the exhibition narrative.” I might have to try and find out more about that commission.

The V&A actually included two exhibitions in their music making. While the Medieval & Renaissance Galleries were being developed, the museum ran a temporary exhibition called At Home In Renaissance Italy, for which 24 pieces were recorded and played ambiently in rotation. “Evaluations demonstrated an overwhelmingly positive response to the music from the visitor’s point of view” but also highlighted some of the problems, not least of which was that some people (especially staff who have to hear it non-stop) really don’t like ambient music. This evaluation informed how the music project developed for the permanent gallery.

The plan had been to use pre-existing recordings “that could help visitors to imagine the medieval and Renaissance worlds and to convey emotion and feeling.” But as the curatorial research developed, it became apparent that there were opportunities to use music that hadn’t previously been recorded, but that was directly connected to the objects and stories of the exhibition. Because “evaluation of audio provision in the V&A’s British Galleries demonstrated that audio-tracks were less effective without a strong connection to immediately adjacent objects or displays” the museum decided upon benches equipped with touch-screens and good quality headphones as “audio-points” where a user could sit a browse music related to what they could see in front of them. Each piece faded out after a minute or two, to ensure a reasonable rate of churn of listeners, but the complete pieces were available from the V&A website, for those that wished to listen to them complete.

Sadly the evaluation had too wide a remit to explore in depth visitors’ responses to the music. All they could say was that it “showed that a high percentage of users engage with the audio-points, a strong indication that they are valued by visitors.” I would have liked to have discovered how well the music achieved their aims of conveying emotion and feeling. They do conclude however that “The increasing ownership of smartphones and MP3 players is rapidly increasing the options for museums to deliver music in gallery spaces and the number of ways in which visitors can choose to engage with it.”

So we need to see some more research about how its used an its impact on the visitor experience.