This Way Up for Saturday 24 Sept 2016

Bin tracking, how GPS is changing our world, a 'digital hell', turbulence on planes and wearables and weight loss: do they work?

Tracking wheelie bins

Christchurch is starting to track its half a million rubbish bins.

The city council says the measure is to cut down on the problem of lost, stolen or damaged wheelie bins - hundreds go AWOL every month and about 16,000 went missing after the February 2011 earthquake that closed off many parts of the city.

All council wheelie bins are now fitted with Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags.The tags get scanned by the rubbish truck on collection day to check that they're outside the right property; and if your bin is at the wrong address it doesn't get collected!

Tim Joyce is the Manager of Contract Management at Christchurch City Council.

How GPS is changing our world

GPS constellation

Photo: (By U.S. Govt Source - NOAA, Public Domain)

If you've used your cell phone, EFTPOS card, the internet or your car today then you've used GPS – the global positioning system developed in the '70s and owned by the US military.

Greg Milner

Photo: (Deborah Zeolla)

Greg Milner is the author of Pinpoint: How GPS is Changing our World.

Read an excerpt of the interview:

Simon Morton: Greg, take me through the data trial how does my phone work out exactly where I am using the GPS system?

Greg Milner: Every spot on earth – or almost every spot on earth – has a direct line of sight to at least four GPS satellites at any given movement. When you flip on your phone and turn on your map programme, it searches for the four strongest satellite signals. These satellites are broadcasting a constant radio signal and there’s information in this signal that tells the GPS chip in your phone exactly where the satellite was when the signal was released and the exact amount of time it’s taken to reach your phone from the satellite. If the phone can make these calculations with at least four satellites simultaneously it can extrapolate that data and translate it into latitude and longitude – and altitude data, if necessary – and then that is translated on to your map programme. So really it’s all about measuring the transmission time of these signals. That’s how it figures how far away it is from the satellites – and by doing that it can figure out where it is on earth.

Simon Morton: How long does a signal take to move from my GPS chip to the satellite? There have to be four satellites for it to be functional. That’s the critical bit here, isn’t it, the four?

Greg Milner: This is an important thing to remember about GPS because it’s one of the reasons why it was so valued by the military. Your phone is not transmitting anything. GPS is what’s called a passive navigation system, meaning all you have to do is receive the signal from the satellite. This was good for the military because it meant that it couldn’t be used by some hostile force to track where you are. It’s purely just about receiving that signal from the satellite and figuring how where you are based on how long it’s taken for those signals to reach you.

Wearables and weight loss: how well do they work?

Samsung Gear Fit

Samsung Gear Fit Photo: By Desmondma - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Wearable fitness monitors and activity trackers like Fibit, Garmin, Jawbone (and all the apps that live on your smartphone) are meant to nudge you into doing more exercise, which many of us do in an attempt to lose a few kilos.

But a US study out this week suggests that if weight loss is your goal, you might be better off saving your money and just using pen and paper instead.

Professor John Jakicic of the University of Pittsburgh led the research, which studied 470 overweight and obese people. After six  months on a weight loss program all of the group were losing weight. Then half of them were issued with a fitness tracker and half weren't. It was the group without the technology who had lost more weight (an average of 2.4 kgs more) after two years!

Jakicic says the surprising results should not discourage people from using activity-tracking technology, but they raise the question of how best to motivate individuals to stick to an exercise or a weight loss programme. He said the results suggest that some people might lose interest in the technology over time, or that it could be making us focus on our goals in a different way.

With the technology moving faster than the science, Jakicic says the study shows there is no 'one size fits all' approach that will work for everyone.

"We need to be a little smarter and more understanding of for whom are [activity trackers] going to work best, under what circumstances do they work best, and what additional features do we need to put into these things to make them actually more effective?"- John Jakicic.

Activity Stats

Photo: (Flickr user Chris Messina CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Shakes on a plane

Turbulence in the tip vortex from an airplane wing

Turbulence in the tip vortex from an airplane wing Photo: (By NASA Langley Research Center (NASA-LaRC), Edited by Fir0002 Publc Domain)

News that the rate of serious mid-air turbulence is increasing will not be welcomed by many air passengers or by the airlines themselves, with estimates that in the US alone damage, delays and disruptions caused by turbulence cost more than US$500 million every year.

Paul Williams studies the air patterns that cause turbulence. He says that less than one percent of the earth's atmosphere contains serious turbulence at any one time, but the incidence of turbulence is rising rapidly. And although airplanes are built to withstand extreme turbulence, climate change could be at least partly to blame.

A 2006 study by the US Federal Aviation Administration found that the number of accidents caused by turbulence more than doubled between 1982 and 2003 (and that's after adjusting for increased air traffic). Meanwhile, Williams says that since 1980 the number of serious injuries caused by turbulence has also doubled.

Dr Paul Williams

Dr Paul Williams Photo: (University of Reading, UK)

He claims that climate change is a major contributing factor as higher carbon dioxide levels at ground level can swiftly translate into higher temperatures and disruptions to jet stream wind patterns in flight lanes 9km above the ground.

With a short-term reduction in carbon dioxide levels looking unlikely, he's hoping that cheaper detection technology means that airlines invest in better turbulence forecasting tools, including using reflected ultraviolet light to detect invisible clear air turbulence.

The best advice? Passengers should keep their seatbelts fastened at all times, as serious injuries typically involve flight crew or other people moving around the cabin.

"If you keep your seatbelt fastened that's the number one thing you can do to virtually guarantee your safety."

Paul Williams is the Royal Society University Research Fellow in the Department of Meteorology at the University of Reading.

Location, location: a digital horror story

'Privacy pragmatist' Kashmir Hill recently uncovered a digital horror story that's about location, location, location.

Creepy House

Photo: (Elana Scotti with permission of Kashmir Hill, Fusion)

There's money in being able to tell where someone is when they use an internet-enabled device like a smartphone. Just think of the targeted advertising opportunities when someone can tell that you are walking past a certain shop, or a cafe at lunchtime - fancy a cheap muffin?! 

So businesses have grown up to sell information about the whereabouts of all those digital devices. These IP address mapping services look at the digital address a device needs to connect to the network and tries to work out where it's being used.

Now, this isn't always a perfect science. Sometimes mapping companies can only tell you are in Auckland, or the North Island, or just that you're in New Zealand. So they come up with a default address to capture this information on their databases. Back in the early 2000s when some of these default addresses were being set people didn't foresee the proliferation of IP addresses and digital devices. So some odd and unfortunate decisions were made.

That's where 82-year old Joyce Taylor from Kansas - and her tenants the Arnolds - enter the scene. Because unfortunately for them, a major mapping company had designated their remote rural property as its default address for the entire US. Fast-forward to today and it looks as though over 600 million digital devices are being operated from that one single address. That's causing Joyce and the Arnolds a whole heap of problems, including baseless accusations of hacking, identity theft, tax fraud, and far, far worse.

"38°N 97°W - there are now over 600 million IP addresses associated with that default coordinate... which happens to be in the front yard of Joyce Taylor's house."

Read Kashmir Hill's full story on

Toilet in Driveway

"At one point, someone left a toilet in their driveway as some kind of strange, ambiguous threat." Photo: Fusion/Kashmir Hill