The Predictable Human (and a Privacy Issue)

A study of mobile phone data shows that we are extraordinarily consistent about our movements. Mobile phone data, unsurprisingly, provides rich pickings for researchers since we carry one around with us all the time, and, unlike dollar bills, it’s more likely to stick with one person. But some have questioned the ethics of such a study.

The BBC reports that the study, by Albert-László Barabási and two others, shows we are much more predictable in our movements than we might think:

The whereabouts of more than 100,000 mobile phone users have been tracked in an attempt to build a comprehensive picture of human movements.

The study concludes that humans are creatures of habit, mostly visiting the same few spots time and time again.

Most people also move less than 10km on a regular basis, according to the study published in the journal Nature.

This is fascinating stuff, and perhaps not unexpected. But appended to the Nature news article on the study are two signed comments by readers alleging that the authors of the study didn’t follow correct ethical procedure. Someone calling themselves John McHaffie says

What is particularly disturbing about this study is something that the Nature news article failed to reveal: that Barabasi himself said he did not check with any ethics panel. And this for an action that is, in fact illegal in the United States. Disgusting lack of ethics, I’d say. And the statement from his co-author Hidalgo isn’t much better: “We’re not trying to do evil things. We’re trying to make the world a little better”. The old “trust me, I know better” argument. Maybe this two should take a basic graduate-level ethics course.

I’ve not yet confirmed it, but it’s likely to be John G. McHaffie of the University of Wake Forest. Another commenter, Dan Williams, calls for a federal investigation of the school involved in the study.

I don’t have access to the original Nature article, so I can’t explore this further right now. But the Nature news item itself says that “Barabási and his colleagues teamed up with a mobile-phone company (unidentified to protect customers’ privacy), who provided them with anonymized data on which transmitter towers had handled the calls and texts for 100,000 individuals over the course of 6 months.”

This is clearly gold. The article suggests that others have long sought to get their hands on mobile phone data. It quotes Dirk Brockmann of Northwestern University in Illinois, as saying that he had not been able to expand a study he did using dollar bills because of privacy issues:

Strict data-protection laws prevented Brockmann from carrying out his own version of the mobile-phone study in Germany, where he was based until recently. Mobile-phone data have the potential to reveal information about where individuals live and work. “I’ve been trying to get my hands on mobile-phone data but it isn’t possible,” he says.

Privacy issues aside, the study is fascinating, and could be useful in monitoring disease outbreaks or traffic forecasting. (I wrote about one using Bluetooth a couple of days ago.) And how about riots? Unrest? Shoppers?

BBC NEWS | Science/Nature | Mobile phones expose human habits

We’re All Information Gatherers Now


When we talk about the future of newspapers, the future of education, the future of media, and the future of learning we tend to ignore the most important aspect. We tend to focus on information delivery and not on the nature of information seeking. We think, somehow, that we still need to get the same kind of information to people, but just in a different way. But the bigger shift is how the Internet has changed what kind of information we’re looking for and how we go about finding it.

A British Library report on the future of libraries [PDF] hits the nail on the head:

Library users demand 24/7 access, instant gratification at a click, and are increasingly looking for “the answer” rather than for a particular format: a research monograph or a journal article for instance. So they scan, flick and “power browse” their way through digital content, developing new forms of online reading on the way that we do not yet fully understand (or, in many cases, even recognise.)

A page later, the report says:

In general terms, this new form of information seeking behaviour can be characterised as being horizontal, bouncing, checking and viewing in nature. Users are promiscuous, diverse and volatile and it is clear that these behaviours represent a serious challenges for traditional information providers, nurtured in a hardcopy paradigm and, in many respects, still tied to it.

 John Naughton at The Observer helps put this in context:

What Marshall McLuhan called ‘the Gutenberg galaxy’ – that universe of linear exposition, quiet contemplation, disciplined reading and study – is imploding, and we don’t know if what will replace it will be better or worse.

This is true, of course, not just of libraries and academia. It’s true of newspapers and pretty much any medium that delivers information. The Internet has forced us, encouraged us, to develop scanning techniques way beyond the simple quick-reading skills of old. Now if I’m looking for information on the Gutenberg Galaxy I can do so quickly on Wikipedia simply by selecting the words on the page, right-clicking and selecting Search Google for… in the pop-up menu. Time taken: 2 seconds. (Indeed, Naughton and The Guardian/Observer could be considered somewhat backward by not providing the link in the piece itself.)

This ability to secure, and appetite for, quick access to snippets information (what I guess we used to call “gobbets“) is part and parcel of the web and of the lives of those who spend any time on it. Why hunt for a dictionary if you can look it up on your cellphone/laptop/fridge display? The impact is still not properly understood or studied, however. If we satisfy our curiosity so easily, does our curiosity grow in all directions, both in breadth and depth, or does it flit from flower to flower like a bumble-bee in summer?

The British Library research seems to suggest the latter. Using words like horizontal, bouncing, checking, viewing, promiscuous, diverse and volatile seems to suggest we’re entering a world where people are fickle and their attention spans short. Once the initial curiosity is satisfied (“What the hell is a gobbet?”) the reader moves on, following the Serendipidity of the Hyperlink.

On the other hand, the word seems to suggest the readers have built-in safeguards against misinformation and inaccuracy. Our scanning skills are honed beyond merely being able to take in a page of information quickly. We — or most of us; Facebook seems to presenting a challenge, if all the gullible messages my friends send me are representative — are able to judge the source of information too, based on the layout, design and style of a web page and its contents.

This latter skill may be more important in the long run. Perhaps the shift is more about our understanding of what we need to know, and the time we can dedicate to knowing it, than to any shift in our attention span or ability to absorb deep columns of information.

The Gutenberg Galaxy, in fact, was bound to come to an end sometime. We simply have too much information to digest nowadays to be able, most of us, to take a leisurely stroll through the literature. And, frankly, in academic terms, much of the literature could be better and more tightly written. (I admit, I scanned the BT report and was mildly irritated it was a) in PDF format which slows digestion, b) didn’t conform to usual layouts and c) lacked an executive summary and conclusion).

If there wasn’t much information out there, and not much access to it, I would probably be quite happy dedicating my time to knowing a lot about Chaucer or the sex life of the fruitfly, and not much else. But the Internet has taught us a valuable lesson that we, as a race, seem to have forgotten: That there is so much stuff to learn out there we should be in a mad race to learn as much as we can about it as we can before we’re run over by a Sat Nav-dependent truck.

Perhaps our generation will be the last to be stupid enough to think we know enough as individuals to be smart (or conversely, happy to wallow in our specialist expertise and general ignorance). Future generations may look back at us and ask why we were so incurious about all the things in front of us we didn’t know anything about. Right now, I’d settle for knowing why the sky is blue, how many Grand Slam tournaments there are, what a grommet is and why there seem to be so many different types of plug to go on the end of a coaxial cable.

Thank God we’re at last beginning to learn the skills necessary to find that stuff out before breakfast.


John Naughton: Thanks, Gutenberg – but we’re too pressed for time to read | Media | The Observer

Gutenberg and the changing nature of how we read and find information

‘Google Generation’ is a myth: pioneering research

Art, the Internet and the Rise of Symbiosis

Great piece from the NYT on the decline of mystery and the rise of symbiosis for artists, who find there’s a living of sorts to be made by engaging with fans online and allowing the community that emerges to choose the direction their musical careers take — even to the point of how much to charge for their creations. But it leaves some doubts:

clipped from

“I vacillate so much on this,” Tad Kubler told me one evening in March. “I’m like, I want to keep some privacy, some sense of mystery. But I also want to have this intimacy with our fans. And I’m not sure you can have both.”

Phones & Our Sense of Value

Jan Chipchase, who has to have one of the coolest jobs on the planet, points out that as phones get cheaper — or at least appear to, as they are sold for very little as part of a service package — so does our perception of their value. Living in a country where you buy the phone yourself, I find attitudes to phones in places like the U.S. and UK startlingly cavalier, as if the device is unimportant and easily replaceable. Which I guess it is. For me, losing my Treo would be deeply, deeply painful.

But the gulf between sticker cost and actual cost hides something deeper than a lighter wallet. Like the humble biro it changes our perception of what it means to ‘own’ a product and may well have significant impact on the speed at which the product ends up reaching the end of its life as a functional object, of being discarded.

Keeping Friends As Avatars


I like this approach to trying to turn buddy lists, address books etc into more dynamic, personal representations: Social Fabric ~ Thesis 2005 (via Infosthetics)

The Social Fabric is a representation of your social world, displayed as a single visual array on your mobile phone. It does not replace your address book or calendar but keeps you subtly informed about which relationships are prospering, which you have neglected, and the overall state of your social fabric.