Macau Matters | Crowd-sourced data collection

Richard Whitfield

Premise ( is a recently formed data collection and analysis company based in San Francisco. It plans to recruit, and pay, large numbers of people to use their smartphones to gather any information that its customers want – think of people taking geo-tagged, time-stamped photos of road potholes so that Premise can pass this information on to the local authorities as a paid service. The authorities can then use this information to plan road repair works.

To test out these ideas the company is currently running a program in three Colombian cities to locate the standing water breeding sites of the mosquitoes that spread the Zika virus. Then the local authorities can carry out works to spray insecticides or, better yet, to eliminate the standing water. The project is being paid for from America’s foreign aid budget.

So far they have recruited 10,000 observers to walk along specified routes in the cities to inspect and take photos of standing water and to interview people about their awareness and understanding of the dangers of standing water and the Zika virus. Very hard-working observers can earn several hundred US dollars a month. The observers have been trained and use their smartphones to take photos of standing water and to record questionnaire responses and this information is passed to Premise via the Internet for analysis. Additionally, the observers put out mosquito traps and take photos of the insects collected to identify dangerous mosquitoes. So far, they have identified 15,000 problematic mosquito breeding sites – especially sewer openings – that would have taken years to find using traditional methods. It has also collected many thousands of questionnaire responses. The company uses artificial intelligence techniques to detect bad data and fraud attempts.

I can see many potential uses for this approach to data collection. For example, I am sure it could be effectively used in Macau to identify breeding spots for the mosquitoes that spread Dengue Fever and to gauge community awareness of this local problem. I am sure that secondary school students would like to earn money for doing this work, and it would be an invaluable learning experience for them. I am also sure that similar approaches could be used to cost effectively identify street lighting, pot hole, street rubbish and other problems for IACM to fix.

Several years ago we contemplated a project whereby university students were to take smartphone photos of specific locations around the city from different viewpoints and at different times over a collection period. We then planned to collate and analyze the photos to look for pedestrian traffic congestion, street rubbish and other problems. Unfortunately, we could not get the project off the ground, but I still think it was a good idea.

I have previously talked about how I object to helping online retailers and others by completing customer reviews and answering customer queries – in past jobs I have been paid good money to do this kind of work. By contrast, I would be very happy to do this work if I was financially incentivized, maybe by receiving gift coupons or discounts for it. Similarly, I would be very happy to report public infrastructure and other similar problems using my smartphone if the Macau government gave me some incentive to do so – perhaps they could give me a few more of the annual Healthcare Subsidy Vouchers that I receive for each problem I report. All this is something that the Macau government should seriously consider.

Categories Opinion