Reality Mining

 Sandy Pentland is using data gathered by cell phones to learn about human behavior.

Sandy Pentland is using data gathered by cell phones to learn about human behavior.

Every time you use your cell phone, you leave behind a few bits of information. The phone pings the nearest cell-phone towers, revealing its location. Your service provider records the duration of your call and the number dialed.

Some people are nervous about trailing digital bread crumbs behind them. Sandy ­Pentland, however, revels in it. In fact, the MIT professor of media arts and sciences would like to see phones collect even more information about their users, recording everything from their physical activity to their conversational cadences. With the aid of some algorithms, he posits, that information could help us identify things to do or new people to meet. It could also make devices easier to use–for instance, by automatically determining security settings. More significant, cell-phone data could shed light on workplace dynamics and on the well-being of communities. It could even help project the course of disease outbreaks and provide clues about individuals’ health. Pentland, who has been sifting data gleaned from mobile devices for a decade, calls the practice “reality mining.”

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