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Reality Mining

The biggest of big data is that which tracks what people "are actually doing rather than what they are looking for or saying," reports Steve Lohr in The New York Times (4/15/14). For example: "Tracking a person’s movements during the day via smartphone GPS signals and credit-card transactions … is far more significant than a person’s web-browsing habits or social media comments." That’s according to Sandy Pentland of MIT, who calls the analysis of such data "reality mining."

Sandy has been onto this concept since the 1970s, when he "worked on a government-financed research project that used satellite images to study animal life on earth. The focus was on beaver populations and the animal’s movements in Canada." "That’s not a bad model for everything I’ve done since," says Sandy. "But I’ve been looking at people, not beavers … using sensors to understand people."

He’s been at this for decades, "attaching sensors to people to study their patterns of movement and communications in work and community settings. In the early days, the sensors tended to be big and clunky," but now "are only a bit thicker than a credit card." Smartphones can work, too. Such data ushers in the ability to measure "communications and transactions as never before" and "accelerate the pace of innovation." Sandy writes about this in his recent book, Social Physics.