Sandy Pentland on Big Data

The screens advertising Alex ‘Sandy’ Pentland’s keynote speech on Big Data on the main stage of The O2 proclaimed him to be ‘one of the world’s most powerful scientists’. That’s quite a reputation, but a cursory glance at the MIT professor’s credentials will tell you why it precedes him. Power, in terms of data at least, is not only the amount of information you have, but how you plan to use it. That includes whether you can find or invent the tools to allow you to achieve that plan and what you do with the results. Pentland’s positions as lead academic for the World Economic Forum’s Big Data and personal data initiatives, and founder of MIT’s Human Dynamics Group, suggest that if data is power then the advertising was spot on.

Pentland, however, was keener to talk about people than data, demonstrating a connection between his research and real world, day-to-day human behaviour that would run as a backbone through the whole speech. That he lectured at Stanford in both computer science and psychology serves to cement this link. “Everything is about people,” he said, “and the more data you have, the more you can make the world go. The status quo in terms of what we actually know, on both a personal and macro scale, is a “data desert.’” 

We don’t know if we ‘fit in’ to social norms in terms of lifestyle choices and living standards, even with groups of people whom we consider to be very like ourselves. Pentland calls these groups our ‘tribes’, a term introduced following analysis of similar patterns in cab journeys in San Francisco. By understanding the nuances of the behaviour of these ‘tribes’ and individuals within them we can make things better, the theory goes.

Issues concerning privacy and personal data were touched upon, with praise reserved for companies who are working to allow people to control their own data. Pentland insists that the “rules of the road”, in terms of data, “have become clear, especially in Europe. Those rules are that you control your own data, but aggregated data can be used”, for example to make the buses run better. “That’s the deal,” he said.  However it is this theory of aggregation for the greater good that demonstrated quite how life-changing the plans for Big Data Pentland has could be. Consider that we could know in advance when someone is becoming depressed or ill due to changes in their mobile phone behaviour. In financial terms, the healthcare savings were suggested as being as much as 90% if certain medical issues can be detected just two months early via a human ‘engine check light’. “By understanding the rhythms and patterns of society, we can understand how to make better healthcare, government, education” Pentland explained. Powerful stuff indeed, and seemingly within his grasp.