Sandy Pentland on Reality Mining: Phoning In the Data

May 7, 2009, 10:55 AM, Posted by Pioneer Blog Team

Professor Alex (Sandy) Pentland is the co-director of the Digital Life Consortium at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and was co-founder of the Center for Future Health at the University of Rochester. Pentland has a grant from Pioneer to explore the potential role of reality mining technology - a concept that he helped develop - in medicine and in public health.  We asked him to tell us about this work, and he responded:

We live our lives in digital networks. We wake up in the morning, check our e-mail, make a quick phone call, commute to work, buy lunch. Many of these transactions leave digital breadcrumbs – tiny records of our daily experiences. Reality mining, which pulls together these crumbs using statistical analysis and machine learning methods, offers an increasingly comprehensive picture of our lives, both individually and collectively, with the potential of transforming our understanding of ourselves, our organizations, and our society in a fashion that was barely conceivable just a few years ago. It is for this reason that reality mining was recently identified by Technology Review as one of “10 emerging technologies that could change the world.”

As pointed out in a recent Nature article, the single most important source of reality mining data is the ubiquitous mobile phone. Every time a person uses a mobile phone, a few bits of information can be collected. The phone pings the nearest mobile-phone towers, revealing its location. Accelerometers already in some phones can record patterns of physical activity, and the phone’s signal processing hardware can analyze the user’s speaking patterns. With the aid of data-mining algorithms, these data could shed light on the user’s health behaviors, creating new ways of improving their health.

To illustrate, consider two examples of how reality mining may benefit individual health care. By taking advantage of special sensors in mobile phones, such as the microphone or the accelerometers built into newer devices like Apple’s iPhone, important diagnostic data can be captured. Commercial trials by start-up Cogito Health are demonstrating that we can accurately screen for depression from the way a person talks -- depressed people tend to speak more slowly, a change that speech analysis software on a phone might recognize more readily than friends or family do. Similarly, experiments in my laboratory have shown that monitoring a phone’s motion sensors can also reveal small changes in gait, which could be an early indicator of ailments such as Parkinson’s disease.

Perhaps the greatest potential of reality mining of mobile phone data is to create a personalized health system (as opposed to a health care system): a set of information tools that helps people thrive, staying healthy and happy during their entire lives. Such a system would be owned by the individuals themselves, not by hospitals or clinics.

Best Buy, CVS, and Wal-Mart are already queuing up to sell and service the tools such as these that allow people to manage their health. The vision is that is emerging is of a health system built around mobile phones with special sensing capabilities to record your daily and weekly patterns, smart bathrooms that keep track of new types of vital signs, smart exercise equipment that knows your personal patterns, and more...all provided by consumer electronics and similar industries. By building a health system that supports lifelong health, we can make sure our healthcare system is used in the most efficient way. And, even more importantly, we can help citizens of the United States of America achieve far more healthy, happy, and even thriving lives.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Pioneering Ideas blog.