Steven’s Social Fabric

My Social Fabric as conceptual screenshotimg

The mobile phone as a truely social device makes an ideal plattform for social network visualisations. This gets demonstrated in a very inspiring way by Steven Blyth in his master thesis project at the now discontinued IVREA. As I found out he researched a question in the immediate neighbourhood of mine:

How can the softness and ambiguity of our social worlds be visualized within the computational and binary context of a mobile device?

The Social Fabric is a representation of your social world, displayed as a single visual array [of avatars] on your mobile phone. It does not replace your address book or calendar but keeps you subtly informed [via the body posture or the avatars!] about which relationships are prospering, which you have neglected, and the overall state of your social fabric.

social fabric - posturesimg

In lots of his ideas and writings I found good arguments for what I want to further investigate. A very good point is that ambiguous metaphors can avoid the impression that a computer system could be truely accurate about something that is vague by its nature: social networks. As I am following a rather number based approach at the moment, this is something I will consider (with this Paper by Thomas Erickson from IBM).

He also revived another fascination (deep inside of me and, actually, my thesis proposal) for agents and avatars. In his opinion they are not discarded by history, as one can hear often, but depend on the proper design and sometimes sophisticated technology. The more the latter flourish the more the first can emerge as useful companions.

In contrast to his work, visualisation is supposed to be only one facett of my thesis with further applications building on insights gained by them.
Something left unclear to a certain extent in his text is his profiling method, what I used to call the “long term relation records”. Especially when considering “old friends” and “family members” a good balancing between current communication behaviour and long time habbits can offer new possibilities to deal with the less active parts of our “circles of friends”.

Thanks to one of his co-students at IVREA, Myriel, for poking my nose into this work! It found some good resonance over different media: WMMNA (relates it to GORI), Wired, LIFT 07

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Visual Phone Bills

matrix visualisation cutout
Usually, your phone bill is a vast amount of numbers that nobody ever reads actually (secret services left aside). It gives you some interesting details if you search for something particular but it’s hard to get an easy overview over what was happening the last month. Now, this has changed! After some weeks of tinkering with code (mySQL, PHP, HTML and some JavaScript) some visual tools have rolled out of my workshop.

simple visualisation for phone bill
The first simple step sums up all of your time spent calling someone on the phone. Different colours for working hours and leisure time (and for the month under focus) are added for further pattern recognition like collegue/friend identification. First evaluations revealed already that some patterns are really characteristic for particular events in the past. That way, the visual attractiveness of certain patterns leads us to remembering interesting stories attached to these dates (that sometimes have been forgotten already). As a nice Extra the whole plot seems to be somehow related to a powerlaw.

histogram of phonbill
A second graph is more oriented towards science and theory. One of the background-chapters in my Master-Thesis focuses on the (mathematical) structure underlying our social networks. Some (Barabási) say all networks of free choice are governed by powerlaws, others (Watts) think that our network of friends is described better by a bell-curve. Maybe I can deduce in reverse from the pictures I get what type of network is contained in a phone bill. It looks as if we talk a lot to non-friends, so far.

month-hour matrix from phonebill
A third (not yet fully matured) version will focus on temporal patterns and therefore plots the month of the year against the hour of the day to locate each call. With this method I want to look for “hot” times with a lot of traffic, usually calm zones and possible dissenters.

The work on this graphic as well as the others shows that rather simple data from a phone bill can generate some complexity when it comes to meaningful visualisation. In order to manage this abundance of information I want to add more options to select and filter the dataset. I also need some means to enlarge the “resolution” (i.e. less information per area) for those points in the graphic that are currently examined by the user.

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All your data are belonging to us!

bundestag kameraueberwachung

A proposal for a new law faces a lot of controversy at the moment: The TKÜ (Law for the Surveillance of Telecommunication). Unfortunately, a lot of people are completely unaware and uninformed about the problems at hand — especially if they are not reading a lot of things online. I think, this is very problematic for two main reasons (a lot more can be found easily via the link in the corner of this site): the relation data stored is more sensitve than we might think and our believe that state authorities are good guys is not necessarily true.

Isn’t it all a minor problem as they are just storing the relational data (who with whom when and where) and don’t record e.g. the voice (they do but via another law)? Acutally, content is completely irrelevant: The whole field of Social Network Analysis strives to map entire social networks (you and your friends and their friends…) based on communication (one very good example is MIT’s Reality Mining Project). They can even estimate your general happiness: spending time with their friends usually makes people more content. As the analysis produces very concrete and specific patterns it is suited ideally for a pattern based search for criminals/terrorists. Especially “home grown terrorists” will have very sharp disruptions in their social life. All data sets should not only be stored but scanned carefully for suspicious behaviour if we want to take prevention seriously!

Still no problem because we don’t have to hide anything! We even stopped downloading files from dubious sources, so the copyright industry’s desires behind the law can’t harm us, either. But what if your friend becomes a suspect? Remember that you are linked with pretty much people with only six in between? I’m pretty sure you will find a true terrorist much closer in your “network”. And you can get a lock-in from prosecution authorities yourself, too! Visiting Afghanistan for whatever reason (relatives? NGO project?) is not a good idea, clearly, but probably not very likely for most of us, either. So Guantanamo is away far enough (you could get “extracted“, still) but serves as a first example why naively believing in the good state is a bad idea: While the U.S.A. can still be regareded a democracy and a constitutional state, all you know about that becomes irrelevant once you find yourself in “the camp”. No civil rights as you are outside the U.S. and of course Europe (if you consider yourself a civilian) and no rights from the Geneva Convention(if you consider yourself a soldier). No perspective to get heard by a lawyer, either.
For all Germans, there is a very recent example from at home: A sociologist working for Humboldt University, on cities in particular, got arrested for being part of a “terrorist community” (it’s all about communities…). It’s not that he really did something but that he was providing the “intellectual basis” for others — via his scientific research. Once you are suspected of terrorism you lose a lot of rights, e.g. talking to your attorney privately. It’s the attorney you need to get you out of prison, unfortunately.

While it is certainly necessary to provide security for the people, there are some limits that should be respected in order not to lose our freedom in tight situations.
On Nov, 6th, we can give our concerns a voice!

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