Reality Mining – Enabling the “Eye of God”
December 27th, 2007

With thanks to Marshall Kirkpatrick, new media consultant.

For a couple of years, Sandy Pentland, professor of media arts and sciences at MIT, has been into researching what he calls “reality mining.” The main idea is that mobile phones of today are well equipped with devices that act as environment sensors: the Bluetooth records your position in relationship with other devices around you, the built-in microphones can analyze talk patterns (talk length, interruptions, tone of voice, telling a lot about the role you play in groups), and the accelerometer (measuring whether you’re sitting or walking).

It all started with the idea of context-aware computing in the 1990s. It is all taken further to the fact that the “dumb” information-technology infrastructure can know something about your social life. Reality mining is based on passively recording data that you don’t have to type in; it is just measured automatically. Why all the trouble? It’s about “paying attention to patterns in life and using that information to help you do things like set privacy policies, share things with people, notify people when you’re near them, and just to help you live your life.”

Examples of reality mining uses: a cell phone can see which of your Facebook friends are also your friends in the real life; identifying a health problem (epidemic) in 12 hours instead of two weeks by observing the behavior of the people living together in a building; it can measure the social health of communities (social integration, transparent political discussions, enabling community events and improving the livability of the area), and it’s also easy to imagine the marketing and shopping opportunities. Reality mining is compared with a huge eye of God watching from above.

Thus, of course, a moral issue is rising from all this: is a sense of privacy possible when the cell phones are constantly logging your life? Professor Pentland, in an interview by Technology Review, believes that the stick-your-head-in-the-sand policy is not appropriate. Instead, he considers that reality mining can be a benefit to all if the use, and not the abuse of data will be at the center of what he calls a new deal for privacy. The services should be optional, not mandatory. He also recommends the removal of personal information data from the public sphere. He makes a call for open discussion about the implications.

If for now reality mining is still only experimental, what can we say about its future? The same Professor Pentland foresees a few important benefits: personal health monitoring with great importance for elder care; anonymous comparison of ourselves with others (seeing us the way other do), not to forget organizations and companies making use of reality mining to help people collaborate and perform their jobs more effectively.

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