Mining personal data to discover what people care about has become big business for companies such as Facebook and Google. Now a project from Microsoft Research is trying to bring that kind of data mining back home to help people explore their own piles of personal digital data.
Software called Lifebrowser processes photos, e-mails, Web browsing and search history, calendar events, and other documents stored on a person’s computer and identifies landmark events. Its timeline interface can explore, search, and discover those landmarks as a kind of memory aid.
“The motivation behind Lifebrowser is that we have too much stuff going on in our personal digital spheres,” says Eric Horvitz, the distinguished scientist at Microsoft who created Lifebrowser. “We were interested in making local machines private data-mining centers [that are] very smart about you and your memory so that you can better navigate through that great amount of content.”
Lifebrowser’s interactive timeline looks like a less polished version of Facebook’s recently introduced Timeline feature. However, Horvitz’s design predates Facebook’s and doesn’t rely on a user to manually curate it. Photos, e-mails, and other documents and data points appear in chronological order, but Lifebrowser’s timeline only shows those judged to be associated with “landmark” events by artificial intelligence algorithms. A user can slide a “volume control” to change how significant data has to be if it is to appear on the timeline. A search feature can pull up landmark events on a certain topic.
Horvitz, who has nearly 20 years of his personal data loaded into Lifebrowser, gave Technology Review a demonstration. For instance, searching for a person’s name made it possible to find the first e-mail that person had sent Horvitz, way back in 1997. Alongside it, Lifebrowser displayed photos from a significant family event that occurred at around the same time, aiding a fuller recollection of the period. “If I had to look at all of this, I would be overwhelmed, just as if all of my memories came rushing back,” Horvitz says.
Horvitz has given copies of the software to colleagues and friends and says they’ve had positive results. He is optimistic that the public will eventually get to try out Lifebrowser, but for now, it remains a research project.
Behind the scenes, Lifebrowser uses several machine-learning techniques to sift through personal data and determine what is important to its owner. When judging photos, Lifebrowser looks at properties of an image file for clues, including whether the file name was modified or the flash had fired. It even examines the contents of a photo using machine-vision algorithms to learn how many people were captured in the image and whether it was taken inside or outdoors. The “session” of photos taken at one time is also considered as a group, for cues such as how long an event was and how frequently photos were taken.