Someone's Watching You

New software can track workers’ activities in great detail to improve communication, but is it too much information?

Many instant messaging and email applications show you who’s online at any moment. A new communications application takes this a whole step further. It can tell you if a coworker is busy working at her desk, if she’s chatting on the phone, or if she’s left the building on a lunch break.

Keeping track: Users of myUnity can see at a glance where their contacts are. The app draws on smart-phone location sensors and logs of network traffic.

The system, called myUnity, was developed at FX Palo Alto Laboratory, a corporate research lab owned by Fuji Xerox. The smart-phone and desktop app gives users a visual contact list showing what their contacts are up to. This can help users decide when would be a good time to contact someone, and how best to do it. MyUnity draws on multiple sources of information, including the location of a cell phone running the app and information processed from a user’s webcam. The software provides a one-click interface for contacting someone via either e-mail or instant message.

Jacob Biehl, a member of the team that developed myUnity, says the software can help users deal with an increasingly fragmented workplace. “The number of tools people use to communicate with their colleagues is increasing, and people are working in different locations and pockets of time,” Biehl says.

The software, available for Windows computers and Android smart phones, uses simple color codes and text to show if a person is, for example, sitting alone at his workstation, or if he is away from his desk but still in the building. This makes it easy to decide if it’s best to stroll over to talk with someone, or to call his cell phone, says Biehl. The interface can also show more detailed information, for example, by displaying status messages from IM or VOIP services and drawing on public calendars.

Information is collected by a suite of software and sensors that feed data back to a service running in the cloud, where users’ clients can access it. Software installed on a corporate network tracks where people are logged in from; and the phone app shares their location information (although only the city they are in is shared with other users). “You can also override that with a custom label for certain locations, for example, their home,” says Biehl. When someone is in the office, her approximate location within the building can be pinpointed via Wi-Fi access points and Bluetooth sensors tracking their phone or laptop.

MyUnity can tell if a person is working at her desk by tapping into her webcam or a security camera with a view of her workspace. “They look for motion in certain areas defined by the user,” says Biehl. That allows this part of the system not only to spot the movement of someone seated at their desk, but also to spot the presence of a visitor. The team is experimenting with using infrared sensors that sense the presence of people but do not capture video.

The Android phone software also detects whether or not a person is in a call, while the desktop version knows whether a person is actively using his computer or not. The ability to track desk phone use is being added to the service. Users can choose how much they want the system to share about them.

MyUnity has been in use at the FX Palo Alto Laboratory for several months, and is also now being used at one division of Fuji Xerox in Japan. Interviews with users have shown that the tool can help improve communications, says Biehl. “We saw a reduction in the number of e-mails being sent and an increase in face-to-face communication–that showed we were providing awareness of opportunities for those meetings to occur,” he says. Users also took part in tests that proved they gained a greater awareness of the typical availability patterns of their coworkers by using the tool.

“MyUnity is a really nice integration of all these different streams that are part of today’s workplace,” says Jason Hong, who works on privacy and mobile computing at Carnegie Mellon University, and who tried the service this summer. “Today the situation is a bit like before the Facebook news feed: the information is all there, but you have to go and look for it yourself.”

However, as Hong points out, not every workplace might adjust so easily to such tracking. “In an organization where there is antagonism, it might not work out so well,” he says. Users may also worry about accidentally disclosing information they don’t wish others to know, Hong says.

Hong and his Carnegie Mellon colleagues have developed a similar location-sharing tool called Locaccino as part of their research. This tool provides users with finer control over what information they share. “One thing we’ve found is that people become less concerned over privacy over time, when the things they initially worry about don’t happen,” says Hong. He suspects a similar pattern may apply to other services that track user behavior, myUnity included.

Hong believes there’s a good chance that such tools will become common, to help bring order to the distributed workplace. “I think there’s also strong use case for a similar service outside of work,” he adds, “since we are already seeing general awareness of friends and family taking off with Foursquare and other services.”

FX Palo Alto Laboratory hasn’t explored that possibility, but Biehl says myUnity’s technology could easily be transferred to a consumer application.

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