BHASKAR CHAKRAVORTI is Senior Associate Dean of International Business and Finance at the Fletcher School at Tufts University and the founding Executive Director of the Institute for Business in the Global Context.
In 2007, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) fined three mobile phone operators for failing to ensure that first responders could locate their customers if those customers were to dial 911 during an emergency. The nationwide initiative to get telecommunications companies to invest in location technologies has been difficult: each company wanted the other parties—including public safety agencies—to invest before it would make its own move. As a result, everyone held off complying with the 2005 FCC mandate.
Even back then, it was odd that the telecommunications sector was so reluctant to embrace location technology. Getting public safety communications right after 9/11 was paramount, and high-tech analysts had been hyping location-based services for years. Marketing gurus extolled the virtues of the “segment of one,” a concept that allowed for individualized selling through the fine parsing of consumer data. The 2002 movie Minority Report offered a stunning, dystopian visualization of this data-drenched future. Shops would be able to customize their commerce at the simple scan of a retina. In the film, personalized greetings and troves of personalized products soon followed. For all of this to be realized, of course, an entire location-cum-personal-data–aware ecosystem needed to be set up—and the mobile phone operators were not ready to invest in their piece without the rest of the puzzle close to being completed.
Although not a perfect facsimile for Minority Report’s smart retina system, today’s devices are within striking distance of it. Mobile apps and websites can find users food, companionship, and the nearest gas station—all based on who is using them, the user’s past behaviors, and the precise location. Today, “Uber” is as much a verb as it is a company—one that can dispatch a car to its users at the tap of a screen and possibly do so faster than calling 911 could summon an ambulance just a few years ago. Thanks to advances in technology, we are locatable almost anywhere, and our personal and professional lives are connected order household staples at the push of a button), measure the use of utilities, monitor people on the premises, and even have their thermostats set from anywhere in the world. These technologies are not limited to the developed world, either. In disaster zones, such as post-earthquake Nepal, several crisis-response platforms cropped up that create maps based on user inputs.
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