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Trippy video tracks 'iPhone fireflies'

When iPhone users volunteer their location data, one result is a beautiful video that uses light to show where they've been.

screenshot of visualization of iPhone movements
If you were in Europe in April, and you were in a giving mood, one of these points of light could be you. Video screenshot by Eric Smalley/CNET

Watch the HD video below and you'll see a beautiful visualization of how 880 iPhone users moved around Europe in April.

The video, produced by European Web site CrowdFlow, shows iPhone positions as points of light on a map of Europe. CrowdFlow got the data by convincing volunteers to upload iPhone logs, which periodically show iPhone locations. CrowdFlow's points of light fade and spread out the longer it's been since an iPhone's position was recorded at a particular spot.

The project takes advantage of an iPhone feature that collects the location of nearby Wi-Fi and cell networks. This feature caused a stir when it came to light in April that iPhone users were being tracked without their knowledge.

CrowdFlow is combining data from iPhone logs to create an open database of Wi-Fi and cell networks. The goal is to make it easier to visualize how these networks are distributed. This video showing iPhone locations flickering like fireflies is one result.

CrowdFlow member Michael Kreil explained in the comments section of the site how the animation works:

The geo data of the iPhones are quite accurate, but I only know the locations at specific points in time. So for example I know the accurate position of an iPhone at 12:03 and at 14:27 but I have no clue how this iPhone had moved in the meantime.

So my estimation is that an iPhone moves from the last known location at an average speed of 30km/h - in all possible directions. It's like a diffusion process. That's why the estimated location becomes more and more blurry and the light fades away.

And vice versa: If I know that an iPhone will appear in one hour at a specific location, it should be somewhere nearby now - in a blur with a radius of 30km. (30km in 1 hour = 30km/h)

And that's why the image becomes blurry during the night. Most iPhones are not moving in the night; therefore they do not collect data; their positions are vaguer and the lights dissolve.

The idea of a government or corporate drone watching a similar image, only with my name attached to one of the dots, gives me the creeps. The (presumably) anonymous dots in the video above, however, make for a thing of beauty. Gives me a new appreciation for the saying "a thousand points of light."

(Via New Scientist)