In one experiment, sociometers revealed that gossip during coffee breaks at a call center for a major bank actually functioned as an exchange of informal tips about how to handle calls better. Pentland said changing the break schedule to optimize socializing made workers more productive and saved the call center $15 million a year.
Now “phones are sociometers, quite explicitly,” said Pentland.
Nicholas Christakis, a Harvard sociologist and physician, says that cell phones are one of a few sources—others include e-mail and institutional and research databases—that can provide rich streams of data to uncover new social interactions that can be of value to business. “All of these projects are interested in using new tools to understand fundamental problems,” Christakis said.
Of course, most data generated by cell phones is private. To develop more applications relevant to business, Pentland says, this issue will have to be addressed. Even in his small experiment at the World Economic Forum, individuals had to share their data for the program to make meaningful comparisons.
Pentland says he’s working on a “trust framework for privacy” with the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University to give individuals control over data while participating in new research.
The framework is still in development, but Pentland’s goal is to create a tiered system where anyone who wanted to offer data—and perhaps in return use an application that leverages such data—could choose a level of privacy: a “bronze” tier would restrict data sent by the phone, and a “silver” or “gold” tier would send much more data.
Lauren Cox is a reporter for Technology Review.