OpenPaths and a Progressive Approach to Privacy

OpenPaths is a service that allows users with mobile phones to transmit and store their location. It is an initiative by the New York Times that allows users to use their own data, or to contribute their location data for research projects and perhaps startups that wish to get into the geospatial space. OpenPaths brands itself as “a secure data locker for personal location information.” There is one aspect where OpenPaths is very different from other services like Google Latitude: Only the user has access to his/her own data and it is never shared with anybody else unless the user chooses to do so. Additionally, initiatives that wish to use a user’s location data must be asked personally via email (pictured below), and the user has the ability to deny the request.The data shared with each initiative provides only location, and not other data that may be personally identifiable such as name, email, browser, mobile type etc. In this sense, OpenPaths has provided a barebones platform for the collection and storage of location information. Google Latitude is similar, but the data stored on Google’s servers is obviously used by other Google services without explicit user permission.

The service is also opt-in, that is, it does not use hidden files on the user’s phone to track location — instead, the user must launch the OpenPaths mobile application to “opt-in” to location tracking. This is a double-edged sword though. I am in the minority, but I would rather have OpenPaths transparently transmit my location data (like Google Latitude) without me having the launch an app, because then the data is more complete. Despite running the application consistently for the past month, there are some unexplainable gaps in the data. For example, somehow only a few days of data for the month of June are available. Fortunately (or unfortunately), my habits do not change that much. After logging in, the user has the ability to visualize their data, or download it in several formats: JSON, CSV or KML for Google Earth.

The user can then view his or her location history on a map. The points are colored by time of day (morning, afternoon, night), or time of week (weekday, weekend). The gradient could and should be more fine grained to provide for better understanding of the user’s location and habits. The map has an animation setting that shows your movement throughout time. Compared to other services, the data seems very coarse, even with the finest settings. Driving at 70mph, a data point seems to be transmitted every 20 miles or so which is 2-3 times per hour. All in all, the map functionality is cool, but leaves a lot to be desired currently.

OpenPaths also allows data to be collected from FourSquare if you choose to do so. Unfortunately, none of my check-ins showed up on the map. Of course, the user can choose to delete their information entirely, adding to the OpenPath’s idea of “opt-in” location sharing.

All in all, I am very excited of where OpenPaths can go. Currently, there seem to be a few technical issues with the Android app that prevents transmitting location data when the app is running in the background. I hope that OpenPaths can run more transparently and reliably on Android as development continues. The privacy policy and ownership of data are both very important and a model that others should implement. The visualization aspect is not incredibly useful or flashy right now, but the user is free to download their data and create their own visualizations or analysis.

To download an OpenPaths app for your Apple or Android phone, click here.

2 comments to OpenPaths and a Progressive Approach to Privacy

  • Steve

    I have found OpenPaths to be wrong. On more than one occasion it has shown me to be somewhere that I have never been. About every day or so at least one datapoint is completely wrong. There seems to be a bug that they need to work out before they can use this data for research.

  • Kelley Courtney


    I have found Openpaths to be quite useful, especially as Latitude will no longer work after August 9th, 2013. Although the app could be more modern and should run in the background, the service itself is good. I have even been able to use their API to extract the data to use on my webpage.

    Best regards,

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