“Mosquitoes” were designed to annoy all under 25-year-olds. It’s time to ban them

Photo: Mike Baird via Creative Commons

There’s a particular shopping area just off the Canterbury ring-road that I can’t help but associate with headaches. Attached to one of the buildings for a long time was a bit of kit called a Mosquito, which, like its natural namesake, had the sole purpose of annoying people. But not everyone. Just those who happened to be under 25.

Like something out of the fevered dreams of a youth-hating Frankenstein, the Mosquito creates a high-pitched irritating sound that takes advantage of the natural decline in humans’ hearing. If you’re under 25 then the only thing you can think about is getting out of the area. If you’re older, then you can carry on with your day oblivious to the auditory apocalypse that all the young people in the vicinity are being subject to.

As the product’s website tells us, the device is pitched at business owners looking to stop young people “hanging around in rowdy groups, littering, smoking and drinking, playing music and generally preventing you from enjoying your home or business.” Which, to be honest, sounds like an understanding of young people derived solely from reading the Daily Express. But sound, unlike the Express, doesn’t discriminate. Everyone under the age of 25 is affected, from choral students to Brownies. 

Compound Security Services, the Welsh company that makes the Mosquito, proudly boasts that the device is 100 per cent legal, yet serious concerns have been raised about the human rights implications of this blanket approach to deterrence. Liberty, the human rights advocacy group, argues that the devices violate the European Convention on Human Rights, most notably Article 14, which prohibits discrimination.


Usage is hotly debated on a local level as well. A testimony on the Compound Security Services website from a member of Sheffield City Council Licensing Board, describes how in certain situations, the installation of such a device might be a mandatory condition of an alcohol licensing application. Yet in 2011, a 17-year-old led a successful campaign to get the device banned from council buildings

Councillors in Kent also banned the use of the devices on council buildings after talking to their youth members. A branch of Co-op in Lancashire similarly got rid of the Mosquito on their property following a campaign by a 19-year-old autistic man. People with autism can be hypersensitive to noise and the National Autistic Society cited numerous reports of autistic people complaining of particularly adverse effects from the devices. Due to the over-25s’ immunity to the sound, the issue isn’t even on the radar of most people – and fighting it is left to those affected.

Now I wasn’t particularly affected by Canterbury’s Mosquito since it was protecting a Waitrose – which is a shop you only start to find interesting in your late twenties anyway. But the ethics of the devices remain highly dubious regardless of what they’re guarding, especially when those most affected are those often without much in terms of political clout. As it stands, anyone can buy them online and so they can be abused, like the couple in Suffolk who wanted to stop their neighbour’s children from playing in the garden.

In Ireland they’ve recently declared the devices a form of assault. The UK should follow suit. As Baroness Chakrabarti, who directed Liberty for many years, said: “What type of society uses a low-level sonic weapon on its children?” If you put it like that, banning it seems the obvious choice.

 
 
 
 

What Citymapper’s business plan tells us about the future of Smart Cities

Some buses. Image: David Howard/Wikimedia Commons.

In late September, transport planning app Citymapper announced that it had accumulated £22m in losses, nearly doubling its total loss since the start of 2019. 

Like Uber and Lyft, Citymapper survives on investment funding rounds, hoping to stay around long enough to secure a monopoly. Since the start of 2019, the firm’s main tool for establishing that monopoly has been the “Citymapper Pass”, an attempt to undercut Transport for London’s Oyster Card. 

The Pass was teased early in the year and then rolled out in the spring, promising unlimited travel in zones 1-2 for £31 a week – cheaper than the TfL rate of £35.10. In effect, that means Citymapper itself is paying the difference for users to ride in zones 1-2. The firm is basically subsidising its customers’ travel on TfL in the hopes of getting people hooked on its app. 

So what's the company’s gameplan? After a painful, two-year long attempt at a joint minibus and taxi service – known variously as Smartbus, SmartRide, and Ride – Citymapper killed off its plans at a bus fleet in July. Instead of brick and mortar, it’s taken a gamble on their mobile mapping service with Pass. It operates as a subscription-based prepaid mobile wallet, which is used in the app (or as a contactless card) and operates as a financial service through MasterCard. Crucially, the service offers fully integrated, unlimited travel, which gives the company vital information about how people are actually moving and travelling in the city.

“What Citymapper is doing is offering a door-to-door view of commuter journeys,” says King’s College London lecturer Jonathan Reades, who researches smart cities and the Oyster card. 

TfL can only glean so much data from your taps in and out, a fact which has been frustrating for smart city researchers studying transit data, as well as companies trying to make use of that data. “Neither Uber nor TfL know what you do once you leave their system. But Citymapper does, because it’s not tied to any one system and – because of geolocation and your search – it knows your real origin and destination.” 

In other words, linking ticketing directly with a mapping service means the company can get data not only about where riders hop on and off the tube, but also how they're planning their route, whether they follow that plan, and what their final destination is. The app is paying to discount users’ fares in order to gain more data.

Door-to-door destinations gives a lot more detailed information about a rider’s profile as well: “Citymapper can see that you’re also looking at high-profile restaurant as destinations, live in an address on a swanky street in Hammersmith, and regularly travel to the City.” Citymapper can gain insights into what kind of people are travelling, where they hang out, and how they cluster in transit systems. 

And on top of finding out data about how users move in a city, Citymapper is also gaining financial data about users through ticketing, which reflects a wider trend of tech companies entering into the financial services market – like Apple’s recent foray into the credit card business with Apple Card. Citymapper is willing to take a massive hit because the data related to how people actually travel, and how they spend their money, can do a lot more for them than help the company run a minibus service: by financialising its mapping service, it’s getting actual ticketing data that Google Maps doesn’t have, while simultaneously helping to build a routing platform that users never really have to leave


The integrated transit app, complete with ticket data, lets Citymapper get a sense of flows and transit corridors. As the Guardian points out, this gives Citymapper a lot of leverage to negotiate with smaller transit providers – scooter services, for example – who want to partner with it down the line. 

“You can start to look at ‘up-sell’ and ‘cross-sell’ opportunities,” explain Reades. “If they see that a particular journey or modal mix is attractive then they are in a position to act on that with their various mobility offerings or to sell that knowledge to others. 

“They might sell locational insights to retailers or network operators,” he goes on. “If you put a scooter bay here then we think that will be well-used since our data indicates X; or if you put a store here then you’ll be capturing more of that desirable scooter demographic.” With the rise of electric rideables, Citymapper can position itself as a platform operator that holds the key to user data – acting a lot like TfL, but for startup scooter companies and car-sharing companies.

The app’s origins tell us a lot about the direction of its monetisation strategy. Originally conceived as “Busmapper”, the app used publicly available transit data as the base for its own datasets, privileging transit data over Google Maps’ focus on walking and driving.  From there it was able to hone in on user data and extract that information to build a more efficient picture of the transit system. By collecting more data, it has better grounds for selling that for urban planning purposes, whether to government or elsewhere.

This kind of data-centred planning is what makes smart cities possible. It’s only become appealing to civic governments, Reades explains, since civic government has become more constrained by funding. “The reason its gaining traction with policy-makers is because the constraints of austerity mean that they’re trying to do more with less. They use data to measure more efficient services.”  

The question now is whether Citymapper’s plan to lure riders away from the Oyster card will be successful in the long term. Consolidated routing and ticketing data is likely only the first step. It may be too early to tell how it will affect public agencies like TfL – but right now Citymapper is establishing itself as a ticketing service - gaining valuable urban data, financialising its app, and running up those losses in the process.

When approached for comment, Citymapper claimed that Pass is not losing money but that it is a “growth startup which is developing its revenue streams”. The company stated that they have never sold data, but “regularly engage with transport authorities around the world to help improve open data and their systems”

Josh Gabert-Doyon tweets as @JoshGD.