!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD XHTML 1.0 Strict//EN" "http://www.w3.org/TR/xhtml1/DTD/xhtml1-strict.dtd"> Streamline Training & Documentation: Alex (Sandy) Pentland on Social Signals

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Alex (Sandy) Pentland on Social Signals

I can't say I'm sold on the broad feasibility of "reality mining," a quantitative technique for tracking people's relationships and behavior developed by Alex (Sandy) Pentland, a professor of media, arts, and sciences at MIT. Reality mining uses electronic sensors to collect the data, which is then analyzed to identify patterns that are influencing performance.

The two videos below provide an overview. The first explains how "honest signals" — defined by Pentland as "unconscious human behaviors that give reliable insight into our relationships and attitudes" — are gathered and analyzed electronically. For more detail, you can turn to Prof. Pentland's 2008 book, Honest Signals: How They Shape Our World .

The second video presents clips of Prof. Pentland responding to questions concerning Honest Signals.

Data collection via sensors that record a person's location, body movements, tone of voice, etc., raises obvious privacy concerns. In an article published in 2007 in Booz Allen's strategy+business magazine, author Mark Buchanan lists Pentland's suggestions for dealing with the privacy issue in a business firm, which include:
... that the technology ought to be used on a voluntary basis, with individuals adopting it because they learn the benefits that it brings for both themselves and the company. An organization could store information on individuals’ own personal computers, rather than in a central location. It might also give people the opportunity, at the end of each day, to review the data that’s been recorded about their activities. They could have the option of deleting anything they’d prefer to keep private. The devices might be fitted with an additional button that would erase, say, the last 10 minutes of data, or data collection might be strictly limited to teams, time frames, and workplace settings where there has been explicit agreement in advance to allow the analysis. Although all these possibilities reduce the amount and quality of data that would be gathered, some steps along such lines will be crucial for giving people confidence that their privacy is being protected.
I leave it to you, after watching Prof. Pentland in the videos, to decide whether or not he oversells his concepts. As I indicated at the beginning, I am not convinced that his "sociometric" techniques have the broad application he claims. For instance, any alert business manager knows, without checking data collected by electronic sensors, that employees often need help in matching their styles to the expectations and preferences of those with whom they work, both internally and externally. On the other hand, I find Prof. Pentland's description of an application like the fuel economy game quite credible.


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