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Protecting the Nervous System of Humanity

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In his May 6, 2011 conference presentation, Professor Alex (Sandy) Pentland of MIT highlighted some important practical applications of what he has termed 'building a nervous system for humanity' ' data collected from a world-wide network of mobile and other electronic devices, and dynamically modeled to identify patterns of behavior to empower individuals and transform our society.

The requisite technology has long been here and the ability to leverage it continues to expand. For example, there are distinct opportunities for behavior analytics and network modeling to draw on simple human activity elements such as volume of communication or velocity of movement to help detect, with computed probability, the onset of flu, GI problems, depression, and sleep difficulty, among many possible health diagnostic findings, at times before the individuals themselves are cognizant of the symptoms. Availability of this information to the individual would deliver measurable value in disease prevention and cost-savings for the healthcare system.
Just as health of an individual could be evaluated using dynamic modeling of human behavior patterns, so could health of a whole city ' and, perhaps, by extrapolation, an entire society ' be assessed and transformed with these techniques. For instance, information clearing patterns offer valuable clues about the socio-economic status of a region. According to Professor Pentland, good internal and internal-to-external communication has been found to correlate with better citizen health, lower crime rates, and higher income in a city. Conversely, poor information clearing had the opposite effect, identifying areas for improvement.
There are numerous commercial benefits as well. As an illustration, group association, or homophily, pattern modeling could be used in applications such as city planning or determination of optimal locations for a new business. If a large number of Starbucks fans ' who may not even know each other ' tend to regularly pass by or gather in a specific area, that location could be ideal for a Starbucks store, with mutual benefits to the business and the coffee drinkers. Monetization of ring tones and referrals are among many other ' and well-known -- commercial applications of personal data aggregation.
Information about people is power and money. This information is creating a data-driven world, driving a revolution in governance, management, and more. It is also driving a debate over its storage, protection, and use. Professor Pentland focused on this hot topic as well and offered potential solutions. As one approach, he recommended applying to data the ownership definition from the Old English Common Law: that an individual should have the right to possess, use, dispose or distribute their own data. Then, an arrangement could be made between a company and an individual wherein in exchange for permission to collect and analyze personal data, the company could offer the individual a copy of their data with analysis results, such as information that could help improve the person's health outcome ' and both parties win.
It is also important to consider data storage security. Professor Pentland suggests saving personal information on an Open Identity Exchange (OIX) ' an already-existing trust network. An additional benefit of this is leverage of interoperable ontologies, which eliminates the need for centralized DNS as a result of distributed networks with data held around the world.
The problem of intellectual property protection is not new by any means. However, this topic recently gained fresh political attention in response to implications of rapidly progressing technological innovation and growth in personal data collection. On May 10 of this year, the US Senate Commission on the Judiciary will hold a hearing on 'Protecting Mobile Privacy: Your Smartphones, Tablets, Cell Phones and Your Privacy.'
Could this be a step toward aligning strategic objectives of non- and for-profit organizations with information and privacy needs of consumers? Could we both, enjoy the benefits of tapping directly into the nervous system of humanity and protect the privacy of its individual members?

Elena Cavallo is a member of the FEI Community and focuses on Strategic Innovation in Medical Research and Healthcare. She will be posting live from FEI 2011 in Boston May 16-18.

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