Home' Technology Review : July August 2013 Contents 70
MIT TECHNOLOGY REVIEW
BUSINESS REPORT — BIG DATA GETS PERSONAL
You coined this term “personal analyt-
ics.” What does it mean?
There’s organizational analytics, which
is looking at an organization and trying
to understand what the data says about
its operation. Personal analytics is what
you can figure out applying analytics to
the person, to understand the operation
of the person.
Why are you analyzing Facebook data?
We are trying to feel out the market for
personal analytics. Most people are not
recording all their keystrokes like I am.
But the one thing they are doing is leav-
ing lots of digital trails, including on Face-
book, and that is one of the pieces we’ve
been experimenting with.
We’ve accumulated a lot of Facebook
data—you’re seeing the story of people’s
lives played out on the level of data. You
can see relationship status as a function
of age, or the evolution of the clustering
of friends at different ages. It’s fascinating
to see how all this stuff is just right there
in the data.
What’s the connection to the search
engine you built?
Right now Wolfram Alpha is strong on
public knowledge: accumulating and
searching the knowledge of the civiliza-
tion. But what you have to do in personal
analytics is try to accumulate the knowl-
edge of a person’s life. Then the two can
actually be integrated, and I’ll give a kind
of silly example. You might ask: “Who do
I know that can go out into their back-
yard and go and look at the night sky
right now?” For that you have to be able to
compute who is in nighttime, who doesn’t
have cloudy weather, and things like this.
And we can compute all that stuff.
What do you see as the big applications
in personal analytics?
Augmented memory is going to be very
important. I’ve been spoiled because for
years I’ve had the ability to search my
e-mail and all my other records. I’ve been
the CEO of the same company for 25 years
and so I never changed jobs and lost my
data. That’s something that I think people
will just come to expect. Pure memory
augmentation is probably the first step.
The next is preëmptive information
delivery. That means knowing enough
about people’s history to know what
they’re going to care about. Imagine
someone is reading a newspaper article,
and we know there is a person mentioned
in it that they went to high school with,
and so we can flag it. I think that’s the sort
of thing it’s possible to dramatically auto-
mate and make more efficient.
Then there will be a certain segment
of the population that will be into the self-
improvement side of things, using ana-
lytics to learn about ourselves. Because
when a pattern is explicit, we can decide,
“Do we like that behavior, do we not?”
Very early on, back in the 1990s, when I
first analyzed my e-mail archive, I learned
that a lot of e-mail threads at my com-
pany would, by a certain time of day, just
resolve themselves. That was useful to
know, because if I jumped in too early I
was just wasting my time.
Are you commercializing these ideas?
The personal analytics of Facebook for
Wolfram Alpha is a deployed project, and
there will be more of those in the personal-
analytics space. We think we can do terrific
things, but you have to be able to get to the
data. That has been the holdup. The data
isn’t readily available. Recently we’ve been
working with different companies to try
and make sure we can connect their sen-
sors to kind of a generic analytics platform,
to take people’s data, move it to the cloud,
and do analytics on it.
How much better can people become
with some data feedback?
I think it will be fairly dramatic. It’s like
asking how much more money can you
make if you track your portfolio rather
than just vaguely remembering what
investments you made.
— Antonio Regalado
Wolfram, a British-born physicist, is
the creator of the software Mathematica
and of Wolfram Alpha, the nerdy “compu-
tational knowledge engine” that can tell
you the distance to the moon right now,
in units including light-seconds.
Now Wolfram wants to apply simi-
lar techniques to people’s personal data,
an idea he calls “personal analytics.” He
started with himself. In a blog post last
year, Wolfram analyzed a detailed record
of his life stretching back three decades,
including hundreds of thousands of e-mails
and 10 years of computer keystrokes.
Last year, his company released its first
consumer product in this vein, Personal
Analytics for Facebook. In under a minute,
the software generates a detailed study of a
person’s relationships and behavior on the
site. It looks like a dashboard for your life,
which Wolfram says is exactly the point. In
a phone call that was recorded and whose
start and stop times were entered into
Wolfram’s life log, he discussed why per-
sonal analytics will make people more effi-
cient at work and in their personal lives.
What do you record about yourself?
E-mails, documents, and normally, if I
was in front of my computer, it would be
recording keystrokes. I have a motion sen-
sor for the room that records when I pace
up and down. Also a pedometer, and I am
trying to get an eye-tracking system set
up. Oh, and I’ve been wearing a sensor to
measure my posture.
Do you think that you’re the most quanti-
fied person on the planet?
I couldn’t imagine that that was the case
until maybe a year ago, when I collected
a bunch of this data and wrote a blog post
on it. I was expecting that there would be
people who would come forward and say,
“Gosh, I’ve got way more than you.” But
nobody’s come forward. I think by default
that may mean I’m it, so to speak.
“You’re seeing the story of people’s lives played
out on the level of data.”
5/30/13 4:47 PM
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