.

Marketing companies own vast amounts of data gleaned from our smartphone apps, which reveal exactly where we’ve been and when. A dataset reviewed by the New York Times shows more than 235 million locations captured from 1.2 million devices in the New York area over a three-day period alone. In a noteworthy article and podcast episode published in December, the newspaper does an excellent job of shaking us out of our complacency, revealing the tragedy of vulnerable individuals whose privacy gets sold “en masse” to the highest bidder. It raises many issues concerning a lack of policy and oversight in the field of location tracking, and exposes its personal, societal, institutional and corporate dimensions.

The staggering numbers involved in location services data gathering could well represent an Orwellian nightmare in the making. As a mobility researcher in the age of big data, however, one eventually becomes inured to such numbers. Instead of viewing them as the doomsday of privacy, one can focus on the promise they hold for building better mobility models. For it’s indeed possible to use such data while protecting people’s privacy.

Privacy protection arms race

There are several approaches to doing this. In the initial phase of their investigation, the journalists’ queries to data providers were met with claims that data were being aggregated or anonymized. Generally, this means that either data points are bundled together so that individuals cannot be told apart, or that identifying information about them is “masked”, i.e. deliberately altered.

When it comes to data on people's movement, however, anonymization is more tricky. As the technologies for protecting privacy and anonymizing individual trajectories advance, so do the de-anonymizing algorithms for reconstructing traces of the individuals. Which means that a responsible data collector might invest in an array of certified devices, only to find that the privacy protection gets defeated sometime later in an unending privacy protection arms race.

Synthetic data as an alternative

This is what motivates our team at the Future Cities Laboratory to develop an alternative to typical location masking techniques. What if we could create synthetic location data streams as what is actually sensed through devices, without compromising resolution in time and space and without reproducing any actual trajectory?

In practice, there are very few circumstances in which someone who wants to analyze mobility data needs access to the detailed original data of a specific person. And it’s also possible to work with a deliberately modified data set. In our research, we focus on building synthetic data streams, using techniques that intentionally restrict the actual raw data to machine-eyes-only.

There are several steps to generating synthetic location data: First raw data from mobile devices are transmitted in a secure and encrypted manner and used to produce audited and certified data aggregates. These can then be deployed to generate synthetic mobility data, which do not differ in their statistical characteristics from the real data. In our lab we’re currently working on two distinct techniques to implement this.

These techniques not only represent advances in privacy preservation; more importantly, they stretch the potential of transport modelling. By feeding this synthetic data into state-of-the-art mobility simulation programmes, it’s possible to create an entire “doppelgänger city” to test, probe and experiment with policy decisions, while leaving people in the real world safe and surveillance-free.

Editor’s note:this article was originally published by ETH Zurich and republished here with permission.

But it’s difficult to think about value when we have no buoy for understanding it outside our traditional lenses: for example, our time, our job, and what others tell us they are worth in cash. This, largely, is the world’s paradigm for value so far. But understanding what value really means changes everything—and will be at the center of the decentralized revolution in global coordination that will unfold over the next decade. So, where do we begin?

Let’s start with gold.

Gold is an inherent value. When backing a market, gold allows us to grow a balanced economy well into the trillions. But why does it allow for massive stable markets to form around it? It is gold's permanence that creates stability. We understand that gold will always have value, because it is inherent in all of us, not just in one part of the world, but everywhere, not just today, but tomorrow and for the long haul.

In the 1930s when the gold standard was removed, we learned that the U.S. dollar didn’t need gold to back its economy to flourish. We learned that it was just a symbol for U.S. citizens to decentralize their coordination around the United States economy.

It turns out, common agreement is a philosophy for building shared economy.



And so it seems inherent value is a marker for us to begin exploring what the future could look like—a future beyond gold and the existing realm of credit. And so what else has inherent value? Is education as valuable as gold? What about healthcare? What about a vote that can’t be tampered with? What about an ID that can’t be stolen or erased? What about access to nutrition or clean water? You will find value everywhere you look.



It turns out, we’ve already done the legwork necessary to uncover the most elemental inherent values: The Sustainable Development Goals are commitments grown out of the drive to bring to life basic tenets of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—the closest possible social contract we have to a global, common agreement.

We’ve already agreed, as a global community, to ensure inclusive and equitable access to quality education. We’ve already agreed to empower all women and girls, to ensure pure and clean water access for all, to promote health at all stages of life, and to end hunger.

We’ve already agreed.

Our agreements are grounded in deep value centers that are globally shared, but undervalued and unfulfilled. The reason for this is our inability to quantify intangible value. All of these rich, inherent values are still nebulous and fragmented in implementation—largely existing as ideals and blueprints for deep, globally shared common agreement. That is, we all agree education, health, and equality have value, but we lack common units for understanding who and who is not contributing value—leaving us to fumble in our own, uncoordinated siloes as we chase the phantoms of impact. In essence, we lack common currencies for our common agreements.

Now we find ourselves at the nexus of the real paradigm of Blockchain, allowing us to fuse economics with inherent value by proving the participation of some great human effort, then quantifying the impact of that effort in unforgeable and decentralized ledgers. It allows us to build economic models for tomorrow, that create wholly new markets and economies for and around each of the richest of human endeavors.



In late 2017 at the height of the Bitcoin bubble, without individual coordination, planning, or the help of institutions, almost $1 trillion was infused into blockchain markets. This is remarkable, and the revolution has only just begun. When you realize that Blockchain is in a similar stage of development as the internet pre-AOL, you will see a glimpse of the global transformation to come.



Only twice in the information age have we had such a paradigm shift in global infrastructure reform—the computer and the internet. While the computer taught us how to store and process data, the Internet built off that ability and furthered the conversation by teaching us how to transfer that information. Blockchain takes another massive step forward—it builds off the internet, adding to the story of information storage and transfer—but, it teaches us a new, priceless and not yet understood skill: how to transfer value.



This third wave kicked off with a rough start—as happens with the birth of new technologies and their corresponding liberties. Blockchain has, thus far, been totally unregulated. Many, doubtless, have taken advantage. A young child, stretching their arms for the first couple times might knock over a cookie jar or two. Eventually, however, they learn to use their faculties—for evil or for good. As such, while it’s wise to be skeptical at this phase in blockchain’s evolution, it’s important not to be blind to its remarkable implications in a post-regulated world, so that we may wield its faculties like a surgeon’s scalpel—not for evil or snake-oil sales, but for the creation of more good, for the flourishing of commonwealth.

But what of the volatility in blockchain markets? People agree Bitcoin has value, but they don’t understand why they are in agreement, and so cryptomarkets fluctuate violently.  Stable blockchain economies will require new symbolic gold standards that clearly articulate why someone would agree to support each market, to anchor common agreement with stability. The more globally shared these new value standards, the better.

Is education more valuable than gold? What about healthcare or nutrition or clean water?


We set out in 2018 to prove a hypothesis—we believe that if you back a cryptocurrency economy with a globally agreed upon inherent value like education, you can solve for volatility and stabilize a mature long lasting cryptomarket that awards everyone who adds value to that market in a decentralized way without the friction of individual partnerships.

What if education was a new gold standard?

And what if this new Learning Economy had protocols to award everyone who is helping to steward the growth of global education?



Education is a mountain. Everyone takes a different path to the top. Blockchain allows us to measure all of those unique learning pathways, online and in classrooms, into immutable blockchain Learning Ledgers.

By quantifying the true value of education, a whole economy can be built around it to pay students to learn, educators to create substantive courses, and stewards to help the Learning Economy grow. It was designed to provide a decentralized way for everyone adding value to global education to coordinate around the commonwealth without the friction of individual partnerships. Imagine the same for healthcare, nutrition, and our environment?



Imagine a world where we can pay refugees to learn languages as they find themselves in foreign lands, a world where we can pay those laid off by the tide of automation to retrain themselves for the new economy, a world where we can pay the next generation to prepare themselves for the unsolved problems of tomorrow.



Imagine new commonwealth economies that alleviate the global burdens of poverty, disease, hunger, inequality, ignorance, toxic water, and joblessness. Commonwealths that orbit inherent values, upheld by immutable blockchain protocols that reward anyone in the ecosystem stewarding the economy—whether that means feeding the hungry, providing aid for the global poor, delivering mosquito nets in malaria-ridden areas, or developing transformative technologies that can provide a Harvard-class education to anyone in the world willing to learn.


These worlds are not out of reach—we are only now opening our eyes to the horizons of blockchain, decentralized coordination, and new gold standards. Even though coordination is the last of the seventeen sustainable development goals, when solved, its tide will lift for the rest—a much-needed rocket fuel for global prosperity.

“Let us raise a standard to which the wise and the honest can repair.”  —George Washington
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.