Cell phones know whom you called and which calls you dodged, but they can also record where you went, how much sleep you got and predict what you’re going to do next.
At least, these are the capabilities of 100 customized phones given to students and employees at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — and they may be coming soon to your cell phone.
The phones were part of a Ph.D. project by MIT Media Lab researcher Nathan Eagle, who handed out the devices as a way to document the lives of students and employees of MIT, ranging from first-year undergrads and MBA students to Media Lab employees and professors.
Eagle’s Reality Mining project logged 350,000 hours of data over nine months about the location, proximity, activity and communication of volunteers, and was quickly able to guess whether two people were friends or just co-workers. It also found that MBA students actually do spend $45,000 a year to build monster Rolodexes, and that first-year college students — even those who attend MIT — lead chaotic lives.
He and his team were able to create detailed views of life at the Media Lab, by observing how late people stayed at the lab, when they called one another and how much sleep students got.
Given enough data, Eagle’s algorithms were able to predict what people — especially professors and Media Lab employees — would do next and be right up to 85 percent of the time.
Eagle used Bluetooth-enabled Nokia 6600 smartphones running custom programs that logged cell-tower information to record the phones’ locations. Every five minutes, the phones also scanned the immediate vicinity for other participating phones. Using data gleaned from cell-phone towers and calling information, the system is able to predict, for example, whether someone will go out for the evening based on the volume of calls they made to friends.
Eagle sees the project as a way to envision how mobile devices will further change our lives, but also as a revolutionary new way to study social networks.
The project was able to record how the lab as a whole responded to events as disparate as an organization-wide deadline and the Red Sox’s stunning World Series win in 2004.
“The Media Lab behavior is beautifully regular, but the lab lives and dies by sponsors’ meetings,” Eagle said. “So the weeks leading up to sponsors’ meetings, people are pulling all-nighters and people are going crazy trying to get their demo working.
“You can quantify the procrastination level,” Eagle said.
Eagle was also able to see that the Red Sox’s improbable breaking of the World Series curse shook even the world of MIT engineers.
“I actually saw deviation patterns when the Red Sox won,” Eagle said. “Everyone went deviant.”
Eagle called the experiment an “unprecedented data set about continuous human behavior,” which he thinks will revolutionize the study of group behavior and have commercial uses as well.
Eagle is already in talks with a large networking company that is interested in handing out phones to its employees to learn how its organization really works, compared with how the company’s organizational chart says it works.
Organizations could use the overview to understand how cliques form, what parts of the organization don’t communicate with each other, and what effects, if any, attempts to change the organization actually have.
By Ryan Singel