Mobile devices from smartphone to netbookAn article on technology and sociological research recently came across the Crawler’s radar, originally published in the New York Times. The story describes how nearly 100 students living in Random Hall (an on-campus dormitory) at MIT have traded in their personal privacy for free smartphones used to study their movements. The smartphones generate information beamed to a central computer, including individual actions, to map the dorm’s social network. The Times writes: “The students’ data is but a bubble in a vast sea of digital information being recorded by an ever thicker web of sensors, from phones to GPS units to the tags in office ID badges, that capture our movements and interactions. Coupled with information already gathered from sources like Web surfing and credit cards, the data is the basis for an emerging field called collective intelligence.”

About the researcher…

Alex Pentland, a professor at the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who is leading the dormitory research project, was a co-founder of Sense Networks. He is part of a new generation of researchers who have relatively effortless access to data that in the past was either painstakingly assembled by hand or acquired from questionnaires or interviews that relied on the memories and honesty of the subjects…

Dr. Pentland calls his research “reality mining” to differentiate it from an earlier generation of data mining conducted through more traditional methods.

Dr. Pentland “is the emperor of networked sensor research,” said Michael Macy, a sociologist at Cornell who studies communications networks and their role as social networks. People and organizations, he said, are increasingly choosing to interact with one another through digital means that record traces of those interactions. “This allows scientists to study those interactions in ways that five years ago we never would have thought we could do,” he said.

Once based on networked personal computers, collective intelligence systems are increasingly being created to leverage wireless networks of digital sensors and smartphones. In one application, groups of scientists and political and environmental activists are developing “participatory sensing” networks.

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