Pokémon Go is a big deal, and no city is safe from the roaming hordes of trainers seeking more powerful Pokémon, sprinting like packs of animals whenever something rare appears. For all of the hype and positivity surrounding the game, there has also been ample concern generated by the not-so-surprising smash hit. What about all that data? Where do is it go and what’s being collected? The game’s design leaves no room for argument: big data is playing a huge role in Pokémon Go in far more ways than just one.

From Birth to Cheats, Pokémon Is All Data

One of the most obvious roles of data is in the game’s creation. It may seem like the location of PokéStop and gyms (which comprise the major locations in the game) must have been hand-picked, as they are almost always in logical, realistic spots. In fact, they were picked by an incredible amount of data. The game’s creator, Niantic previously released a gamed called Ingress, which also relied on maps and geolocation, just like Pokémon Go. Niantic have very deep ties to Google Earth and ample practice with geolocative datasets. They also famously came from Google, itself. The landmarks, coupled with crowdsourced data, as well as data gathered from Ingress players running to-and-fro has led the Pokémon Go makers to a goldmine of information with which they have crafted a world so intuitive, it seems to have been manually constructed piece-by-piece. In reality, Pokémon Go players are to an extent playing an elaborate, augmented reality-version of Google Maps.

For players who have seen a Magikarp, Goldeen, or other water-type Pokémon, they were likely surprised to see those water-type Pokémon actually appear near water. A couple of Magikarp, notoriously useless yet quintessential Pokémon, seen flopping on the banks of a river may appear to be happenstance—but it’s not. Niantic assigned values to areas based on what kind of habitat an area would be. Streams, zoos, grassy parks, are all transformed into game locations of the appropriate type.

Some players seem to be as big of data lovers as the creators. There are not only cheats popping up, but algorithm-driven programs to understand where, when, and what Pokémon may appear. Players are using algorithms to chart the best possible routes to hit as many PokéStops in as little time, while other are collecting wide-spread data on Pokémon appearances for future analyses. Some particularly cheeky players used a loophole in Niantic’s algorithms to show the location of every Pokémon in an area. While all of this data use impresses players, it’s not what companies find appealing about the game.

Making Data as a Currency More Palatable

Pokémon Go is also being fearfully heralded by some as the first big instance of surveillance capitalism or, at the very least, a huge data privacy concern. The game makers got into a bit of trouble when it was discovered that the Pokémon Go account creation process “erroneously” requested full access permission to the user’s Google account on iOS. There is no doubt a large amount of danger inherent in gathering such vast amounts of active user data, and that includes possible legal problems, which has already happened in Germany. Players are more than happy to give away their information in exchange for being the very best (trainer), but that doesn’t mean it’s particularly safe. Data has always been destined to become a form of currency, and Pokémon is making the process much more palatable to users. It does not particularly matter what data the game makers want to track, as players will be willing, though perhaps reluctant, to hand it over.

Data collection from Pokémon also opens a lot of incredible new doors. Pokémon Go’s existence relies on data gathered from Ingress’s several years of legwork and the existence of tools like Google Maps. With more growth and data mining, game makers and businesses will be better able to understand and appeal to players. Where players go, what they do, and everything in between will lead to the chance to deeply understand customer behavior and needs. The seemingly free game may only be taking in profits from purchased Pokémon lures and ad-placements now, but the real pay-off will come much later and, in reality, should make player’s lives better, too. Just how ghastly players find Niantic’s data collection depends on how protective they are of their data.

Pokémon Has More Than Just Jigglypuffs In Its Future

What’s to become of Pokémon Go in the future? The game itself is far more of a social experience than a true game, and the future possibilities of the technology may be even weightier than the hype it’s garnering. Like Ingress’s seeming upgrade to Pokémon Go (at least in terms of popularity), Niantic will hopefully use their newly acquired data to create upgrades both to the platform and other unexpected areas. Perhaps the coolest possibility of all includes Niantic opening up their map and data sets to developers, a possibility that isn’t so hard to imagine.

Google is often known for sharing data, particularly on deep learning, in order to push development forward—which does, in turn, benefit the company by returning new prospects and opportunities. Letting third party developers use the technology to create spin-offs or add-ons could mean heightening classroom and educational experiences or health and wellness initiatives. Pokémon Go is already being heralded as the game that made kids get up and go, but what if it was carefully structured so players got even more out of it? What if players in a particular class had to get out and see landmarks? To learn about history as they catch endless Pidgeys?

The seemingly gimmicky possibility opens real doors to educators and professionals who may be trapped in standardized lessons and systems. This is, as of now, still only a potential opportunity. As the game has only been available for less than a month, it could be some time before the platform and data is really put to use by outsiders. Courage, and data, will pull us through.

image credit: Eduardo Woo

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