Sandy Pentland, a researcher at MIT whose work has received funding from Nokia, is working on processing more than 350,000 hours of data collected from peoples' cell phones. More than just who calls who, Pentland is also studying proximity, location and activity data using information like interactions recorded between Bluetooth devices.
The result is a field Pentland has given the obnoxious name "reality mining."
In an interview yesterday with MIT's Technology Review (found via author Nick Carr), Pentland says that self-reporting of social connections and roles is far inferior to the kinds of analysis that can be done using passively collected data via mobile devices. While calling this data "reality" denies the importance of our hearts, minds and other parts of reality as yet imperceptible by our cell phones - it is very interesting research none the less.
This is where discussions about things like OpenID, OAuth and OpenSocial are likely to be played out. Passive mobile data will be a huge part of and will leverage your Social Graph. Once this kind of data becomes readily accesible in sophisticated ways, that could be when we'll see Telcos pressuring web services to produce standards compliant data - so they can make use of it for mobile marketing and services. Some of those services will be awesome and I anticipate them with both eagerness and caution.
Pentland predicts a future when he'll be able to use frequency of calls, physical proximity and interruptions in conversations to determine for example who among your Facebook friends is a real life friend, who you've never met in person and who is your superior in a workplace hierarchy. I see different ring tones for these different groups of people some time in the future!
Pentland also says that the data mobile devices can capture will be good for early alerting of things like epidemics (15% of the residents of an apartment building didn't go to work today - could be a problem). Using special software and already available hardware, there's a whole lot of data that can be collected - it's just a matter of figuring out how best to crunch that data.
Just Imagine the Shopping Opportunities!
Some people seem dead set on making the movie Minority Report a reality, Pentland among them. (Can we just have the interface without the mind reading, please?) Obviously the marketing opportunities that will arise from this kind of data are huge. Big, big money.
When your phone and Facebook put their heads together with your boss's Amazon wishlist - the only question that will remain is whether the birthday presents will be purchased via your phone or via your web enabled brain implant (11% of US respondents say they are somewhat or very likely to get one).
What Will the Rules Be?
Data mining is not bad. In fact, it's quite an exciting idea with a whole lot of potential. As long as it's not used to catch me thinking subversive thoughts - then let's go with it. That's not even an "if" - that's pretty much a deal breaker. Let's ignore that for just a moment, though.
Pentland articulates two good rules in his interview. First, there has to be an opt-out (or opt-in) option. Second, aggregate data needs to be anonymized and your individual data needs to be viewable by no human eyes but your own. When he says we need a "new deal" for privacy, I think that's probably a good choice of phrases.
Mobile devices are wonderful, life and world changing things. They are also the hardware for projects like Pentland's, for better or for worse.