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Analysis | Big data and cameras in the workplace

Surveillance camera

With the vast majority of buildings expected to become cognitive within 10 years, what – as consumers – are we willing to accept about the technology which is being rapidly retrofitted into offices and infiltrating our everyday lives?

So-called cognitive buildings monitor themselves and learn how to make best use of their resources, be it from energy savings, space efficiency or comfort for its occupants. To do this, sensors are placed and plugged into every part of the building to record thousands of data points which is then turned into useful information.

The ethics behind big data is an ongoing debate. Sometimes you may not even be aware of the data which is being gathered, but when buildings which we use on a daily basis become cognitive it will add a whole new layer of interaction.

With sensors becoming ever cheaper, the market is exploding and it is now becoming possible to retrofit a building with hundreds to thousands of sensors from motion, temperature and CO2 detectors to camera and sound sensors. The level to which they have the ability to interact with people is having a profound effect on how popular the uptake of use has been.

No-one would accept a camera in a washroom, but someone would probably accept a more simple motion sensor

Lars Ramfelt

There is no doubt of their capability. Some camera sensors can not only count the number of people in a room, but they can tell which sex they are and their age, give or take a couple of years. They can track eye movements and record, for example, how long a person has watched an advert.

However, Lars Ramfelt chief executive of Swedish sensor maker Yanzi says these more complex sensors which collect detailed information about the user, still only have a limited use because they are not yet accepted in society.

“No one would accept a camera in a washroom, but someone would probably accept a more simple motion sensor because it just detects heat passing by it so it can’t really see the difference between, for example, a dog and a human.”

And the area where they had found the most resistance to some of the more detailed sensors was in the workplace.

“My number one experience is that people aren’t very happy to have cameras in work environments,” said Ramfelt. “If you want people to use things you don’t tell them you have a camera watching them every hour of the day.”

My number one experience is that people aren’t very happy to have cameras in work environments

Lars Ramfelt

The company has also had to assure its customers that although some of its sensors detect noise, they do not record or cannot distinguish a voice conversation.

“Worse than cameras, if I put a camera on your desk then you will hate me, but if I put a voice recorder you’ll hate me more,” he said.

In time, Ramfelt thinks that sensors will become part of everyday life because of the benefit they bring and if the user is incentivised.

“You need to make it natural to have these sensors in this environment,” he explains. “If I want to put a camera on your desk, then I need to bring back some value to you. Otherwise you won’t accept these sensors.”

He compared it to the rapid rise of the smart phone which performs so many functions to help our daily lives and many say they now cannot live without.

Change will happen, but will the fear of “Big Brother”, slow the uptake of this new technology? Or will it become firmly ingrained in our culture, with users happy to hand over their data to make life easier? Time will tell.

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