TR: What could be some benefits to all this measurement?
SP: You can really see things in a way that you never could before–a God’s-eye view. One of the examples I’ve been stuck on recently relates to how transformative Google Earth has been. Imagine having something where you can see all the people moving around on a map. Think about SARS in Hong Kong. What if in a particular apartment building, nobody left for work that day? You could identify a major health problem in 12 hours instead of two weeks. Another example is the social health of communities. It’s known that social integration, or how well people mix, correlates with whether or not a community is thriving. With reality mining, you can actually see social integration, as it happens or doesn’t happen. Once everyone can see it, then you can start to have transparent political discussions. Why isn’t the mayor putting more sidewalks and crosswalks in this area? Could more community events make the area more livable?
TR: This all gets very creepy very fast. How do you provide a sense of privacy in a world where cell phones are constantly logging your life?
SP: That’s not a trivial thing. Do you really want your government to know about you to that level? It could stop SARS, but there’s a big trade-off there. You could make this a much more transparent world where that’s available to everybody. But we definitely need to talk about it and figure out a new deal for privacy–to use this data and not be abused. The typical way is to make sure people can opt into these services so that they aren’t mandatory. Another thing is to make sure the personal data is removed from the information that anyone other than you sees. It comes down to needing to have open discussions about the implications of these things. The people making policies don’t know what is possible, and they don’t necessarily make policies that are in our best interest. You know, excuse the example, but I’ve been in a downtown somewhere and I don’t know where the nearest bathroom is, or it’s raining and I’d like a taxi. I’d give up a little bit of personal information to find these things. There are times when those services are really valuable. These capabilities are coming, but we have to come to a new deal. It doesn’t do any good to stick your head in the sand about it.
TR: Right now, reality mining is mainly done as research projects. Where do you see the technology and applications in five years from now?
SP: One is personal health monitoring. This means that people get feedback on how well they’re doing. This is really important in elder care. I see a reality check [coming] on e-mail lists and spam. How about I never get e-mail from a person I’ve never met? You can build whole systems based on real physical experience so it defaults the right way. I’m not saying any of this would be completely automatic; you could adjust it as you needed to. There’s also the personal-coach aspect of this stuff. All of us have the experience of talking to other people in public, but it’s hard to see yourself as others see you. Reality mining will help us see ourselves and, in an anonymous way, compare ourselves to peers. And I see organizations and companies using this to help people collaborate more effectively and do their jobs more efficiently.