My phone thinks I live at a bar and other digital foibles

Google Now on my new smartphone initially thought I lived at the Madison Bear Garden.

Google Now on my new smartphone initially thought I lived at the Madison Bear Garden.

Following my last post, I’ve made the switch from Sprint to Ting and got a refurbished Samsung Galaxy SII (Epic 4G Touch). It led to a little bit of drama when the first one I received was a dud, but more on that later.

One of the joys of getting a new-ish smartphone is trying out the new bells and whistles, including updating the phone’s Android operating system to a more recent version. That upgrade allowed me to test the updated Google Search app and came away only modestly impressed — the app’s Google Now feature aims to display cards of information based on your searches, location, preferences, etc.

It’s Google Now’s virtual anticipation that recently caught me off guard. I was about to leave work last week when I checked into the app. Anticipating that I would like to know how long it would take for me to drive home, the app displayed the approximate travel time to my “home” — Madison Bear Garden.

I was a little curious at first why Google would think I live at a bar. I could think of a couple of possibilities. I used the app at the bar one evening to look up some trivial items that came up during a discussion. Because I made that search at night when many people are at home, it’s possible the app guessed my home on my evening location — at the bar.

Thankfully it asked to confirm if the location was my home and I could correct it.

These types of tech gaffes point out how digital companies try to sort out relevant information from the bushels of data we submit everyday. While it may be wise to be cautious about such data mining, these shortcomings sometimes underscore the old programming principle of GIGO — Garbage In, Garbage Out. The difference is that sometimes the computer gets garbage out of what we would consider to be relevant information.

Here are some other recent tech peeves I’ve observed:

  • At the consumer budgeting site, the service says I’ve been spending a lot of money lately at Chico’s — a clothing store I’ve never purchased from and don’t recall ever being inside. Apparently the site skims recent purchases and tries to determine where they should go.
    In this case, it sees a purchase from “Chico CA” and assigns it to Chico’s. The site currently applies this to all Chico purchases. There is no option to change it other than manually editing every entry … which defeats the purpose of having the site easily display how a user’s money is being spent.
  • Facebook tries its best to guess certain information about its users, often to hilarious effect. At various times, the map on my Timeline said I was born in Chico and identified one of parents. That’s all fine if it were true — at the time I said Chico was my hometown, but that’s not necessarily where I was born. Also, my parent isn’t necessarily my biological one so that doesn’t make sense either.
    Another time, Facebook finally correctly identified the town I was born, but then indicated I was born at the city’s airport. Boy, that would be a fun story for my parents to tell me — again, if that ever happened.
  • The photos feature on Google+ uses technology to try to identify people’s faces (Facebook has a similar tool). Sometimes that tech fails in a cruel way:
Google+ doesn't believe there's a face in this image.

Google+ doesn’t believe there’s a face in this image.

Although some of these goofs can be annoying or time consuming to fix, I’m generally content to let these inaccuracies stand if they’re not causing any harm. I’m leery at providing too much information online. These errors can stand as reminders of what these companies are trying to do and how far they have to go to accomplish their goals.

Fuming after suspicious data charges from Sprint

Dollar signs are superimposed over my Sanyo/Kyocera featurephone.

Dollar signs are superimposed over my Sanyo/Kyocera featurephone.

I tilted at the windmill that is Sprint customer service two weeks ago, and came away a little poorer for it and without many answers.

When I was paying the January bill, I noticed a charge of about $5 for casual data usage. I don’t have a data plan, but I still go online with my featurephone about twice a year. January may have been one of the months I went online to check something. I wasn’t very happy at the amount, but I shrugged and paid it.

A few days later I went to the Sprint website and found another surcharge for February — about $30 for consuming 15 MBs of data. This was far too much and I had to dispute it.

I talked with four or five reps in two days. I wasn’t able to get them to drop the charge entirely or to fully explain what the possible usage may be. In speaking with them, it seemed like they didn’t care how the data was used, just that it was apparently used and someone (not them) needed to pay for it.

Every rep was more than happy to tell me that these were “valid charges.” I nearly always responded that I was disputing the validity of the charges regardless of how “valid” the charges were. That didn’t hold much water with them, nor did telling them that I’m the only person who had control of my phone at all times and no one else could’ve physically used it to access the Web.

After a few minutes, we began the art of the haggle. I said I didn’t use the data and wanted the fees removed outright — they offered to cut the surcharge 15 percent. Clearly we had some way to go.

Although I would’ve preferred the fee waived entirely for data I didn’t use, I was happy to split the difference and pay 50 percent (although I’m sure it cost Sprint very little to deliver the relatively small amount of data). Barring that, I kept asking for some information on how the data was used.

The second rep pushed the discount to 40 percent — an amount which they said was the absolute limit of what they could do. I kept pushing and found myself a mystery. Speaking with the rep, we were able to eliminate Picture Mail as the culprit — I pay a separate fee that covers that.

The rep offerred to tell when my phone supposedly accessed the Internet and provided this rundown:

Date Time Usage
Feb. 20 4:10 p.m. (PST)
Feb. 21 1:10 a.m.
2:10 a.m.
4:10 a.m.
6:10 a.m.
7:10 a.m.
9:59 a.m.  12,284Kb
11:10 a.m.
12:10 p.m.

Now, I was certain that I didn’t use the data — it’s extremely unlikely I logged on at precisely 10 minutes past the hour so often within a 24-hour period. The rep reasoned I may have had an app or service that checked in at those times (she also noted that the bulk of the data took place at 9:59 a.m., outside of that pattern).

I explained to her and the rep the following day that I have a featurephone — it’s not a smartphone where it’s easy and convenient to download apps. I wouldn’t use the browser for casual surfing, and I didn’t download ringtones or anything else.

I had to end the call on the first day … because my cellphone battery was dying.

I called back the following day and got the new rep up to speed. He offered 35 percent and was willing to honor the 40 percent from the day before (which wasn’t guaranteed). I decided to keep pushing to either get an answer about the random usage or the 50 percent discount. After a little bit of further haggling, the rep offered a $15 adjustment that basically amounted to 50 percent and I cut my losses (as I’m sure they did as well).

In the end, I’m still out $15 for data I didn’t use and no real explanation of what happened. I tried searching the Web for cases were phones were randomly checking data, but couldn’t easily find anything. I also searched my phone for any weird text message or anything other thing that could provide an answer.

This wasn’t a wonderful experience with Sprint customer service, but it’s something I won’t be suffering under much longer. My latest two-year contract with the company expires Sunday and I will be taking my services elsewhere. I had already decided to jump ship to a company that could offer a smartphone on a monthly basis without costing an arm and a leg, but this data surcharge and customer service experience sealed the deal.