New Video Game Raises Serious Questions about Big Data Issues

By November 05, 2013
Big Data Watching you

The forthcoming Watch Dogs video game enables the player to control a hacker. Meanwhile the ‘WeareData’ promotional site gives us all a clearer grasp of the role electronic data now plays in our everyday lives.

In a bid to promote its soon-to-be-released video game Watch Dogs, where the main character is a hacker browsing through a universe of data, Ubisoft has not been content with just a traditional trailer. Instead, the French global video game developer and publisher commissioned the Paris-based BETC Digital agency to come up with a far more immersive experience for gamers. The outcome of this initiative is the WeareData website, which allows the user – in the same way as the game hero – to observe the huge range of data available in an urban context, whether socio-cultural (the unemployment rate, average salary, price per square metre of real estate, etc), geographical, or more technical and hands-on, including manipulating WiFi networks, tracking trains moving through the metro system, activating mobile telephony masts, magnetic fields and surveillance cameras. It took just five months to gather and map this freely available data, because “the smart city is already a reality,” stresses Eugénie Valletoux, Digital account director at BETC Digital, explaining: “The smart city stands at the border between fiction and reality and makes us realise that the data is there and can be used.”

APIs + Open Data = scary amounts of information?

The WeareData site enables the visitor to understand how the data is mapped, by providing a subjective view of districts in three major European capitals – London, Berlin, and Paris. The dynamic nature of the data is heightened by the real-time addition of geolocated Tweets and shared Instagram images. According to the site’s creators, the Twitter and Instagram APIs are the most open of all the social networks, so this data can be used very easily. This social data is refreshed every few minutes, underlining the capacity of the system not only to gather data but also to manage it. For example, in the field of transport data, even though the French state-owned public transport operator RATP’s API was not yet finalised when the WeareData project was being developed, Google’s freely accessible GTFS system, which had already been tried out in the United States in cities such as Portland, Oregon, was able to supply reliable real-time data on train frequency. Only legal restrictions and ‘self-censorship’ prevented some information from being displayed. Eugénie Valletoux conceded that “this kind of project could not have been carried out in Hong Kong, where all the vital data is protected.

Making citizens more aware?

However, the ability to display such things as crime rates or electricity consumption opens the door to potential intrusion into private life. People might well become anxious at the thought that their ‘digital shadow’, i.e. their social network activity, can be captured and instantly displayed for all to see. In fact this is precisely the effect that the Watch Dogs developers were hoping to create – the game’s hero Aiden Pearce invites the user to download a smartphone app that will delete all his/her data. The new game may therefore help people to get a feel for just how much data we supply individually and collectively and perhaps spur the citizen to take action to re-possess his/her own data. “All the data sources indicated can be exploited again and again,” points out Thomas Boutte, International Account Director at BETC. Meanwhile, a good many visitors to the WeareData site have been making practical use of it to locate available self-service city bikes. And this is only a start. “The project is open-ended and it’s quite possible that there are quite some changes to come,” reveals Thomas Boutte.

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