MIT’s Alex Pentland speaks to us about the importance of ‘neighbourhood data’ in tackling some of the world’s biggest challenges – and why we need data unions.
Alex Pentland was once named one of the seven most influential data scientists in the world.
Five years ago, his ground-breaking book Social Physics described how ideas flow through social networks and are ultimately transformed into behaviours.
It demonstrated the value of ‘digital breadcrumbs’ – vast quantities of small pieces of data created by the widespread use of mobile phones, credit cards and social media.
This information shows what people really do with their lives, not what they say they do when answering surveys.
Professor Pentland, based at the globally-renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology, believes collecting and analysing this data could help tackle an enormous range of global problems.
This is because the information is genuine, real-time and paints a clear picture of interactions (social physics) at a neighbourhood level.
He relates this specifically to Covid-19: “You can do a good job managing public health using census data, but you need neighbourhood level data to see disparities in health outcomes. You cannot answer ‘Why are these people dying and those people not?’ until you make local-level maps.”
He cites one specific recent example: “Our Covid-19 work in New York showed many people were getting infected in grocery stores, so they changed the policy and brought orders outside rather than letting people in.
“You can also use data to identify local patterns, like more people suddenly going to hospital, to predict where outbreaks will happen. Israel uses that operationally to identify Covid-19 outbreaks as early as possible.”
Professor Sandy Pentland will be talking at our annual Data Conference on Nov 6. Book your place today.
Interview conducted by David Lee.