The Really Smartphone – Research Analysis Of Smartphone User Data

25Apr11

Read the full story from the Wall Street Journal: Here

Excerpt:

By ROBERT LEE HOTZ

Apple and Google may be intensifying privacy concerns by tracking where and when people use their mobile phones—but the true future of consumer surveillance is taking shape inside the cellphones at a weather-stained apartment complex in Cambridge, Mass.

For almost two years, Alex Pentland at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has tracked 60 families living in campus quarters via sensors and software on their smartphones—recording their movements, relationships, moods, health, calling habits and spending. In this wealth of intimate detail, he is finding patterns of human behavior that could reveal how millions of people interact at home, work and play.

Through these and other cellphone research projects, scientists are able to pinpoint “influencers,” the people most likely to make others change their minds. The data can predict with uncanny accuracy where people are likely to be at any given time in the future. Cellphone companies are already using these techniques to predict—based on a customer’s social circle of friends—which people are most likely to defect to other carriers.

The data can reveal subtle symptoms of mental illness, foretell movements in the Dow Jones Industrial Average, and chart the spread of political ideas as they move through a community much like a contagious virus, research shows. In Belgium, researchers say, cellphone data exposed a cultural split that is driving a historic political crisis there.

And back at MIT, scientists who tracked student cellphones during the latest presidential election were able to deduce that two people were talking about politics, even though the researchers didn’t know the content of the conversation. By analyzing changes in movement and communication patterns, researchers could also detect flu symptoms before the students themselves realized they were getting sick.

“Phones can know,” said Dr. Pentland, director of MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory, who helped pioneer the research. “People can get this god’s-eye view of human behavior.”

So far, these studies only scratch the surface of human complexity. Researchers are already exploring ways that the information gleaned from mobile phones can improve public health, urban planning and marketing. At the same time, researchers believe their findings hint at basic rules of human interaction, and that poses new challenges to notions of privacy.

“We have always thought of individuals as being unpredictable,” said Johan Bollen, an expert in complex networks at Indiana University. “These regularities [in behavior] allow systems to learn much more about us as individuals than we would care for.”

Today, almost three-quarters of the world’s people carry a wireless phone. That activity generates immense commercial databases that reveal the ways we arrange ourselves into networks of power, money, love and trust. The patterns allow researchers to see past our individual differences to forms of behavior that shape us in common.

As a tool for field research, the cellphone is unique. Unlike a conventional land-line telephone, a mobile phone usually is used by only one person, and it stays with that person everywhere, throughout the day. Phone companies routinely track a handset’s location (in part to connect it to the nearest cellphone tower) along with the timing and duration of phone calls and the user’s billing address.

Typically, the handset logs calling data, messaging activity, search requests and online activities. Many smartphones also come equipped with sensors to record movements, sense its proximity to other people with phones, detect light levels, and take pictures or video. It usually also has a compass, a gyroscope and an accelerometer to sense rotation and direction.

After analyzing more than 16 million records of call date, time and position, the researchers determined that, taken together, people’s movements appeared to follow a mathematical pattern. The scientists said that, with enough information about past movements, they could forecast someone’s future whereabouts with 93.6% accuracy.

The pattern held true whether people stayed close to home or traveled widely, and wasn’t affected by the phone user’s age or gender.

“For us, people look like little particles that move in space and that occasionally communicate with each other,” said Northeastern physicist Albert-Laszlo Barabasi, who led the experiment. “We have turned society into a laboratory where behavior can be objectively followed.”

Only recently have academics had the opportunity to study commercial cellphone data. Until recently, most cellphone providers saw little value in mining their own data for social relationships, researchers say. That’s now changing, although privacy laws restrict how the companies can share their records.

Several cellphone companies in Europe and Africa lately have donated large blocks of calling records for research use, with people’s names and personal details stripped out.

“For the scientific purpose, we don’t care who the people are,” said medical sociologist Nicholas Christakis at Harvard University, who is using phone data to study how diseases, behavior and ideas spread through social networks, and how companies can use these webs of relationships to influence drug marketing and health-care decisions.

His work focuses on “social contagion”—the idea that our relationships with people around us, which are readily mapped through cellphone usage, shape our behavior in sometimes unexpected ways. By his calculation, for instance, obesity is contagious. So is loneliness.

Even though the cellphone databases are described as anonymous, they can contain revealing personal details when paired with other data. A recent lawsuit in Germany offered a rare glimpse of routine phone tracking. Malte Spitz, a Green party politician, sued Deutsche Telekom to see his own records as part of an effort by Mr. Spitz to highlight privacy issues.

In a six-month period, the phone company had recorded Mr. Spitz’s location more than 35,000 times, according to data Mr. Spitz released in March. By combining the phone data with public records, the news site Zeit Online reconstructed his daily travels for months.

In recent days, Apple Inc. triggered privacy alarms with the news that its iPhones automatically keep a database of the phone’s location stretching back for months. On Friday, The Wall Street Journal reported that both Apple and Google Inc. (maker of the Android phone operating system) go further than that and in fact collect location information from their smartphones. A test of one Android phone showed that it recorded location data every few seconds and transmitted it back to Google several times an hour.

Google and Apple have said the data transmitted by their phones is anonymous and users can turn off location sharing.

“We can quantify human movement on a scale that wasn’t possible before,” said Nathan Eagle, a research fellow at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico who works with 220 mobile-phone companies in 80 countries. “I don’t think anyone has a handle on all the ramifications.” His largest single research data set encompasses 500 million people in Latin America, Africa and Europe.

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