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The Deeply Private Information Hidden in Plain Sight

The Deeply Private Information Hidden in Plain Sight
Benedikt Groß and Joseph Lee

More than 20,000 people have virtually peeked over the fence at 2202 Orange Grove Avenue in Los Angeles, despite the obvious efforts of the owner to keep voyeurs out. They've spied the Italian cypress trees that grow there and the weird, amoeba-shaped pool. It measures 3.6 meters by 11.6 meters. That's pretty middling in size for the pools around town, not too ostentatious but not all that drought-friendly, either.

You can peer at the pool yourself in this video (at about the one-minute mark) from researchers Benedikt Groß and Joseph Lee:


The LA Swimmer — 43123 Pools I Have Not Visited and Never Will from Benedikt Groß on Vimeo.

The two took on the odd exercise of mapping every pool in Los Angeles – 43,123 of them – from publicly available aerial imagery and databases. The above companion video to the project combines some of the results with a roving tour from Google Street View's API. Satellite photos from the National Agriculture Imagery Program provided the birds-eye view of the pools to identify and measure them. Google's Street View gives a more intimate perspective: one, mounted from the roof of a car, directly over property lines and into yards.

The project's "Big Atlas of L.A. Pools," an actual printed document containing some 6,000 pages in 74 volumes, offers a case study in the power of big data to reveal both big insights (just about every neighborhood in LA has private pools but Watts) and pinpointed personal information. Since the L.A. Times explained the method behind the research last week, its contradictions have only grown. Now even more people have looked in that backyard (ourselves included), while pondering the tradeoffs between the awesome power of satellite imagery – and the ease with which non-experts on the Internet can mine it – and this unsettling loss of privacy.

Groß and Lee intended these conflicting reactions. As they write introducing the project:

The “Big Atlas of LA Pools” is about the process of mapping and map-making in the contemporary age of big data, open data, crowdsourcing, and citizen science. The project attempts to highlight on one hand the emerging and powerful role of non-domain experts in the discovery of scientifically and socially relevant information, and on the other hand seeks to emphasize the darker, creepier, and more contentious issues surrounding data processing and exploration.

Every "smart cities" initiative today is built in some form on data like this that we could never previously collect or process or cross-reference (Groß and Lee, for instance, have compared their pool database against L.A.'s registry of sex-offender addresses). But with all that data come these privacy implications that have so far received far less public debate than neat new tech tools the data enables.

It's hard to argue that we should live without public satellite maps and Google Street View so that we can protect the privacy of fenced-in yards. But more conversations about those tradeoffs are certainly worth having. That would also be a good payoff for the two researchers who went to some ridiculous lengths to create just one printed copy of this insane document:


The Big Atlas of LA Pools – #0 Process and Overview from Benedikt Groß on Vimeo.

Emily Badger is a former staff writer at The Atlantic Cities based in Washington, D.C. She now writes for The Washington Post. All posts »

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