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Social Physics for Better Life

People visit a Computer and Technology Information exhibition in Jakarta, Indonesia

Government and industry have always relied on data about human behavior, such as census data. In recent years, however, we have developed a `social physics’ that allows us to analyze the `digital breadcrumbs’ that we all leave behind us as we move through the world (e.g., call records, credit card transactions, and GPS location fixes), and use this new analysis capability to improve government and public systems.

As an example, on May 1, 2013, the Data for Development (D4D) initiative of Orange, MIT, Louvain University, UN Global Pulse, and the World Economic Forum, gathered 90 research organizations from around the world to report results from their analysis of data describing the mobility and call patterns of the citizens of the entire African country Côte d’Ivoire.  Researchers reported using this data to dramatically improve public health systems, transportation systems, and government transparency.

This initiative also suggests that we may generally misunderstand many of the privacy fears associated with the release of data about human behavior. In this data commons, the data were processed by advanced computer algorithms (e.g., sophisticated sampling and use of aggregated indicators) so that it was extremely unlikely that any individual could be re-identified. In fact, several research groups attempt to and failed to find a path to re-identification.

As social physics analysis capabilities continue to evolve, scientists are discovering that we can begin to explain many things—such as financial crashes, revolutions, panics—that previously appeared to be random events. These new tools, with the perspective they provide on life in all its complexity, will shape the future of social science and public policy. Just as the microscope and telescope revolutionized the study of biology and astronomy, insights obtained by using social physics to analyze digital breadcrumbs has the potential to revolutionize regulation and public policy.

Want to read more about Professor Pentland’s work?  Check out his new book Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread—The Lessons from a New Science.

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