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The social gains of location tracking in wearable tech

Our collective experience of the pandemic has swept many of the old concerns about tech privacy to one side, while bringing to the fore the need to apply human ingenuity to solve long-standing social and health problems. In this article, we look at the contribution location tracking in wearable technology can make to a safer and healthier post-pandemic society, and how we can best handle privacy concerns.

We’re all familiar with Global Positioning System (GPS), a global navigation satellite tracking system owned and controlled by the United States, in operation since the 1970s. In recent years, other location tracking technologies, such as radio-frequency identification (RFID), Wi-Fi positioning, near-field communication (NFC), Bluetooth beacons, and micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS) sensors are part of the location tech infrastructure. New on the market is ultra wideband (UWB), which will enhance accuracy, and upcoming are improved satellite networks and 5G, which will extend and improve density of coverage.

They all have some limitations. GPS is confined to the outdoors, only accurate to over three metres and doesn’t like obstacles such as tall buildings or geomagnetic storms; Wi-Fi gets confused by multiple signals. Used in various combinations, however, and depending on the context, a high standard of coverage is achievable. And it means innovators have greater possibilities to create wearable devices for multiple purposes with reliable location tracking functionality.

Enhanced location tracking and the rise of wearable devices give rise to privacy concerns for many people. But we only have to look at the now commonplace contact tracing of the Covid-19 pandemic to see the value of these technologies may be more important than the reservations. And we may see more significant innovation in pandemic management tools as we look for ways to give people as much freedom as possible while not fuelling another wave of disease.

In other words, if location tracking technology can save lives and improve quality of life, is it worth surrendering some aspects of our privacy? Let’s look at some of its applications.


Location tracking in wearables

Many of us already use wearables to track basic health indices, and the market is increasing. Fitbit, for example, had 31 million users in 2020 and is growing. These medical wearables monitor externally trackable indices such as heart rate, sleep quality, steps and stress. Machine learning hones the accuracy of devices over time, as they get to know your habits, physiological ranges and behavioural patterns.

These devices are sometimes seen to tap into the marketplace of the worried well, but that would be to trivialise their broader implications. And this is where location tracking comes in. Take the example of a person living with dementia being cared for at home. The care system would need to make sure that the individual was safe, but carers can’t be there 24/7.

What if the individual was wearing a wearable that could track their movements? One of the most critical issues for people being cared for at home is balancing independence and safety and it is an issue which, in the UK, is at the heart of the Care Act 2014.

The ability to monitor changes in everyday patterns could quickly flag up when there was a potential problem or medical emergency, while giving the individual the freedom to live as they choose.

The infrastructure for the wearable could be a closed-loop, wireless system and rudimentary machine learning to understand the individual’s normal habits, connected to the individual’s care networks. There are broader implications for healthcare too, says Louise Rogerson, Founder and Chief Operating Officer at Howz, an organisation pioneering monitoring in the home:

“Location tracking medical wearables could be deployed to detect cardiac arrest, grand mal seizures or respiratory distress in individuals with chronic health conditions, meaning that they would be liberated from continual supervision or staying close to home ‘just in case’.”

Taking some of the precariousness and unpredictability out of chronic illness could contribute to a better quality of life and has the potential to also provide life saving interventions.

“The other huge opportunity,” says Rogerson, “is for people with cognitive impairment or mental health conditions (including learning disabilities) and significant health conditions. This group are often restricted in their movements and the activities they undertake in order to stay safe. Imagine if they were free to do what they want as a wearable monitors key signs of health and wellbeing and locates them if a problem should arise. This includes all ages and it is well documented that this group have significantly worse physical health outcomes than those without mental illness or a learning disability.”

Apple ultra wideband

Apple has patented the use of UWB, or ultra wideband, to recognize when you’re approaching your car, unlock its doors and govern when you can turn it on.

Apple via US PTO; Stephen Shankland/CNET

If location tracking technology can save lives and improve quality of life, is it worth surrendering some aspects of our privacy?


Improving Crowd Safety and Management through Wearables

Crowds can be made safer with wearable tech by ensuring more efficient crowd flow and management. A controversial subject, perhaps, calling to mind some of the more dystopian aspects of smart cities. Yet viewed more benignly, location tracking in wearable technology is a way of avoiding crush events by showing people how to evade crowd bottlenecks or alerting the authorities to potential problems.

Any large crowd events, such as football matches, festivals, religious gatherings or horse racing, can deploy this technology to help manage crowds and assist individuals to navigate their surroundings. Who hasn’t been in a crowded area and wanted to find a quiet spot to wind down, or had to leave in a hurry, so needed to find the best route out? Wearable technology with location tracking could help organisations curate events, such as those aforementioned. They could also enhance museum tours or art exhibitions, by guiding people through the display to deliver the best experience.

There is also every possibility that people will want more flexible ways to reach out to others post-pandemic. A wearable technology that connects to diverse networks to find like-minded people for friendship, company, or business opportunities based on location has enormous potential.

Wearable technologies in health, social care and crowd management more than meet the high-value, low-friction equation. Sounds good? It can be. But there are pinch points when it comes to mining the benefits of the technology?

If there are, it’s not about the location technologies. Some of the location systems, such as GPS, are very mature, while others, such as active BluetoothLW, are emerging rapidly. What is still undergoing evolution are the wearable applications, especially those operating in non-GPS supported applications. The options, however, are huge and we are seeing significant traction in this space.

Moving the technology on

So how is a company like Thrive engaging with location-based wearable technology? It’s all about evolving a technological strategy, says Thrive CEO Jacob Skinner. You need to assess the problem to be solved, predict the likely obstacles that arise, and isolate the requirements, the limitations and the question marks.

“The Thrive team starts by asking fundamental questions about the use case and the users. What is the right location tracking approach for the conditions and what is the strategy for developing and deploying it? Cost, coverage and data flows are all critical factors. Ultimately, we have to ask who is going to benefit and if the value proposition stacks up.” says Skinner.

Thrive have a lot of experience in this space, so the user story and the data requirements feature heavily in the initial stages of a large-scale deployment. Skinner adds:

“When addressing a user base of 50-100,000 individuals in a confined space, the system design and data challenges need hitting head on.”

The social and political context is all-important. Research studies show that the take-up of such technologies vary across populations, personality types and how tech-savvy individuals are. Governments already have blanket powers in relation to mobile phone data, including location information; unfortunately many have been systematically desensitised on privacy. And when we know that companies like Facebook have been under scrutiny for failing to protect personal data, it is obvious that better safeguards are needed.

Skinner argues that we can create high degrees of security through encryption and blockchain, but inevitably these systems can be exploited if the players involved have bad intentions. The ethical questions involved with new technology are essential for innovators to confront:

“We take our role as system innovators seriously and are keen to work on next generation technologies that provide better design and have privacy baked in,” says Skinner.

The benefits of location tracking in wearable technology for many people are too critical to get overly mired in ethical reservations. Ultimately, it comes down to whether there is a sufficient risk of harm to shift the boundaries between privacy and safety. But with the right safeguards in place and in the hands of responsible and regulated companies, wearable tech can transform the landscape of health and safety and enhance the quality of life and cultural experiences.

Some of our work:


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