The data we leave lying around

I did a piece for the Boston Globe’s Ideas section on an experiment gearing up to see what sewage had to say about society.

The editors asked me to write a brief sidebar on other unexpected sources of data, but didn’t run it. Here is is:

Sewage is not the only thing that carries data that tells us something about human life. There are all sorts of places where we unwittingly leave clues to who we are, as individuals and as a society. Some other examples:

  • Abandoned DNA: Spit your gum or dump a coffee cup in the trash, or leave a hair behind, and with it is your DNA. Police departments are beginning to store it and as DNA sequencers plunge in price, it will get easier for people to learn things about us from our trips to the barber shop.
  • Our “exposome,” our selves:  Coined by John Mattison, chief medical information officer at Kaiser Permanente, the exposome refers to the vast amount of data we create about our activities, thanks to wearable fitness trackers, the spread of objects with sensors, and our penchant for connecting everything to the Internet.
  • Video trails: Our trips through the city are increasingly caught on camera. As software gets better at reading emotions from faces, it’s creating a potential record of our feelings.
  • Metadata scraping: The sites we visit, the people we email, the pages we view –every action we take in the digital world creates metadata, data about what we do. Pull that data together and it can build an accurate profile of who we are.
  • Cell phone: Almost half of us, 44 percent, have slept with our cell phones on hand. These are tracking devices we take with us everywhere, and a treasure trove of personal – and societal – habits.

Leave a Reply