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I know what you’ll do next summer

Only recently, ETH Zurich opened its Risk Center as an interdisciplinary initiative promoting the wisdom and mysteries of ‘Integrative Risk Management’ (IRM), a both vague and vogue concept primarily ascribed to insurance companies and now applied to academic disciplines ranging from political sciences, economics and sociology to engineering, physics and mathematics. While this cluster is without a doubt a promising concentration of forces and resources, addressing issues as diverse as the “growing connectivity of our increasingly globalized socio-technological systems; population growth; shifting demographics; new technologies; the increasing density of assets; the growing frequency of hazardous events; and the vulnerability of an aging infrastructure”, an indeed interesting area of associated research was today highlighted in the SPIEGEL.

Under the hackneyed title of “Espionage for a good cause: How spying on mobile phones can help us”, the reporter refers to a scientific concept that stems from complex social network analysis and goes by the name of “Reality Mining” which, again, is considered one aspect of digital footprinting. Pioneered by the MIT, reality mining is understood as “the collection of machine-sensed environmental data pertaining to human social behavior. This new paradigm of data mining makes possible the modeling of conversation context, proximity sensing, and temporospatial location throughout large communities of individuals. Mobile phones (and similarly innocuous devices) are used for data collection, opening social network analysis to new methods of empirical stochastic modeling.”

Two applications are obvious immediately: behavior prediction and contingency management.

The first paper is “studying the mobility patterns of anonymized mobile phone users. By measuring the entropy of each individual’s trajectory, we find a 93% potential predictability in user mobility across the whole user base.” If this astonishing result, which has been confirmed by similar studies, does not prove that man is a creature of habit, what more does it need? One of the authors, Albert-László Barabási, is quoted saying that interestingly (or comprehensibly) only Friday and Saturday evenings remain “islands of freedom”, meaning that mobility patterns then differ significantly from the rest of the week.

In terms of emergency planning, the second paper argues that “communication spikes [which are] accompanying emergencies are both spatially and temporally localized, but information about emergencies spreads globally, resulting in communication avalanches that engage in a significant manner the social network of eyewitnesses”. It takes little imagination to grasp the implications of these findings for contingency detection and response.

It remains to be seen if reality mining will chiefly be applied to serve the common good, or will become yet another marketplace trading privacy for profit.

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