Information on people’s movements could be used to optimise transport systems or to locate commercial services conveniently on common routes.

How and where do people move, what do they do, who do they meet? These are big questions, and until recently, very difficult to study.

 “Mobile technology opens up completely new dimensions for research,” says Pan Hui, newly appointed professor of data science at the University of Helsinki.

 “Service providers have information about the movements of tens of millions of people throughout the day. This information can be compiled into datasets which can show in detail how people move through the city. We can also see where people congregate and meet and how long they spend time together.”

Hui has studied people in motion for more than 15 years. In the beginning, he did this through transmitters which volunteering research subjects had to carry with them, but after the proliferation of smartphones, he can now collect much bigger data by creating smartphone apps or get his research data directly from service providers.

The research may have practical applications: for example, in his doctoral dissertation Hui studied how social networks can help people transfer data on their phones in a peer-to-peer approach without using any network infrastructure, even when the infrastructure is destroyed for example during nature disaster or when the network is too crowded.

Similarly, information on people’s movements could be used to optimise transport systems or to locate commercial services conveniently on common routes.

At the moment, Hui is primarily interested in augmented reality. This is a technology in which virtual elements are superimposed on the things we see in the real world. It also provides the most immersive way for users to visualize and interact with big data. 

 “For example, when travelling in a strange city, we could look at a shopping centre and be able to read information about which services it provides, or look at a historical monument and find out something about its background.”

Augmented reality could help us navigate, or see what a jacket at an online shop would look like on us.

Unfortunately, current augmented reality interfaces are clumsy. They all require some variety of headset, and so far the technology has been unreliable and required too much battery power.

Nevertheless, Hui believes that now is the time to develop better applications, interaction methods, and privacy protection for augmented reality.

 “The right interface will be invented. We should be ready for it.”