There is a smart phone goldmine (Smartphone goldmine) in knowing call locations and frequency.
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 say 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. Mr. Eagle used the data to, for example, determine how slums can be a catalyst for a city's economic vitality. In short, slums provide more opportunities for entrepreneurial activity than previously thought. Slums "are economic springboards," he said. This is only one example of how There is a smart phone goldmine in knowing call locations and frequency.
Cellphone providers are openly exploring other possibilities. By mining their calling records for social relationships among customers, several European telephone companies discovered that people were five times more likely to switch carriers if a friend had already switched, said Mr. Eagle, who works with the firms. The companies now selectively target people for special advertising based on friendships with people who dropped the service.
At AT&T, a research team led by Ramon Caceres recently amassed millions of anonymous call records from hundreds of thousands of mobile-phone subscribers in New York and Los Angeles to compare commuting habits in the two metropolitan areas. Dr. Caceres, a lead scientist at AT&T Labs in Florham Park, N.J., wanted to gauge the potential for energy conservation and urban planning. "If we can prove the worth of this work, you can think of doing it for all the world's billions of phones," he said.
Thousands of smartphone applications, or "apps," already take advantage of a user's location data to forecast traffic congestion, rate restaurants, share experiences and pictures, or localize radio channels. Atlanta-based AirSage Inc. routinely tracks the movements of millions of cellphones to generate live traffic reports in 127 U.S. cities, processing billions of anonymous data points about location every day. Companies can use this smart phone goldmine in many ways.
As more people access the Internet through their phones, the digital universe of personal detail funneled through these handsets is expanding rapidly, and so are ways researchers can use the information to gauge behavior. Dr. Bollen and his colleagues, for example, found that the millions of Twitter messages sent via mobile phones and computers every day captured swings in national mood that presaged changes in the Dow Jones index up to six days in advance with 87.6% accuracy.
The researchers analyzed the emotional content of words used in 9.7 million of the terse 140-character text messages posted by 2.7 million tweeters between March and December 2008. As Twitter goes, so goes the stock market, the scientists found. "It is not just about observing what is happening; it is about shaping what is happening," said Dr. Bollen. "The patterns are allowing us to learn how to better manipulate trends, opinions and mass psychology." This means that knowing call frequency and key word content can lead to a really big smart phone goldmine.
Some scientists are taking advantage of the smartphone's expanding capabilities to design Android and iPhone apps, which they give away, to gather personal data. In this way, environmental economist George MacKerron at the London School of Economics recruited 40,000 volunteers through an iPhone app he designed, called Mappiness, to measure emotions in the U.K.
At random moments every day, his iPhone app prompts the users to report their moods, activities, and surroundings. The phone also automatically relays the GPS coordinates of the user's location and rates nearby noise levels by using the unit's microphone. It asks permission to photograph the locale. By early April, volunteers had filed over two million mood reports and 200,000 photographs.
Publicly, Mr. MacKerron uses their data to chart the hour-by-hour happiness level of London and other U.K. cities on his website. By his measure, the U.K.'s happiest time is 8 p.m. Saturday; its unhappiest day is Tuesday. Perhaps less surprisingly, people are happiest when they are making love and most miserable when sick in bed. The most despondent place in the U.K. is an hour or so west of London, in a town called Slough.
On a more scholarly level, Mr. MacKerron is collecting the information to study the relationship between moods, communities and the places people spend time. To that end, Mr. MacKerron expects to link the information to weather reports, online mapping systems and demographics databases.
Several marketing companies have contacted him to learn whether his cellphone software could help them find out how people feel when they are, for instance, near advertising billboards or listening to commercial radio, he said. Mr. MacKerron said he's tempted—but has promised his users that their personal information will be used only for scholarly research. "There is a phenomenal amount of data we can collect with very little effort," he said.
Some university researchers have begun trolling anonymous billing records encompassing entire countries. When mathematician Vincent Blondel studied the location and billing data from one billion cellphone calls in Belgium, he found himself documenting a divide that has threatened his country's ability to govern itself.
Split by linguistic differences between a Flemish-speaking north and a French-speaking south, voters in Belgium set a world record this year, by being unable to agree on a formal government since holding elections last June. Belgium's political deadlock broke a record previously held by Iraq. The calling patterns from 600 towns revealed that the two groups almost never talked to each other, even when they were neighbors. This social impasse, as reflected in relationships documented by calling records, "had an impact on the political life and the discussions about forming a government," said Dr. Blondel at the Catholic University of Louvain near Brussels, who led the research effort.
The MIT smartphone experiment is designed to delve as deeply as possible into daily life. For his work, Dr. Pentland gave volunteers free Android smartphones equipped with software that automatically logged their activities and their proximity to other people. The participants also filed reports on their health, weight, eating habits, opinions, purchases and other personal information, so the researchers could match the phone data to relationships and behavior.
The current work builds on earlier experiments, beginning in 2004, conducted in an MIT dormitory that explored how relationships influence behavior, health, eating habits and political views. Dr. Pentland and his colleagues used smartphones equipped with research software and sensors to track face-to-face encounters among 78 college students in a dorm during the final three months of the 2008 presidential election.
Every six minutes, each student's phone scanned for any other phone within 10 feet, as a way to identify face-to-face meetings. Among other things, each phone also reported its location and compiled an anonymous log of calls and text messages every 20 minutes. All told, the researchers compiled 320,000 hours of data about the students' behavior and relationships, buttressed by detailed surveys.
"Just by watching where you spend time, I can say a lot about the music you like, the car you drive, your financial risk, your risk for diabetes. If you add financial data, you get an even greater insight," said Dr. Pentland. "We are trying to understand the molecules of behavior in this really complete way."
Almost a third of the students changed their political opinions during the three months. Their changing political ideas were related to face-to-face contact with project participants of differing views, rather than to friends or traditional campaign advertising, the analysis showed.
"We can measure their daily exposure to political opinions," said project scientist Anmol Madan at MIT's Media Lab. "Maybe one day, you would be able to download a phone app to measure how much Republican or Democratic exposure you are getting and, depending on what side you're on, give you a warning."
As a reward when the experiment was done, the students were allowed to keep the smartphones used to monitor them. The researchers, however, were the real discoveres of one more smart phone goldmine (Smartphone goldmine).
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