What years of email may say about you

Most of us accumulate huge amounts of data in our lives – including emails, telephone calls and spikes of writing activity, as measured by daily keystrokes. Stephen Wolfram, a scientist and entrepreneur, wondered: Could all of that information be compiled into a personal database, then analysed to tell us something meaningful about our lives? Maybe it could suggest when we tended to be the most creative or productive, along with the circumstances that led up to those moments.

Wolfram runs Wolfram Research, which is deeply steeped in data analysis, along with Wolfram Alpha, a computational search engine that provides many answers for Siri, the personal assistant for Apple’s iPhone 4S.

Computers are good at spotting patterns, and Wolfram thought an analysis of his own personal data might reveal patterns in his life – for example, when he was most likely to come up with new ideas, “preferably good ones.”

Wolfram, who lives in the Boston area, calls himself a ‘remote CEO’ – interacting with his company, which is based in Champaign, Ill., almost exclusively by email and phone. He has accumulated data on the job for decades – whether for hundreds of thousands of his outgoing emails back to 1989, for 100 million or so of his keystrokes since 2002, or the time and duration of thousands of phone calls. “Storing things is cheap,” he says of this monumental stockpile. “I’ve tended to take the attitude, ‘Don’t throw electronic things away.”'

Personal analytics

Although he has long been accumulating this data, he never got around to analysing it until a few months ago. To see the possibilities, he decided to try a new company product, Wolfram Alpha Pro. He used his own data collection for his initial foray into an area he calls “personal analytics.”

“I thought I should use myself as a guinea pig, and see what could be done,” he said.
Wolfram Alpha Pro does more than search through data, he said. Ask it a question, and if the information is in the right format and not too voluminous, the system can prepare a short report – usually a summary and figures.

He wanted to use this analysis to discover, among other trends, patterns in his personal activity that might be linked to bursts of creativity. Yes, he had memories of times when he had been creative, but the details and circumstances were not always crystal clear. He hoped Wolfram Alpha Pro could act as an adjunct to his personal recollections.

He put the system to work, examining his email and phone calls. As a marker for his new-idea rate, he used the occurrence of new words or phrases he had begun using over time in his email. These words were different from the 33,000 or so that the system knew were in his standard lexicon. The analysis showed that the practical aspects of his days were highly regular – a reliable dip in email about dinner time, and don’t try getting him on the phone then, either.

But he said the system also identified, as hoped, some of the times and circumstances of creative action. Graphs of what the system found can be seen on his blog, called “The Personal Analytics of My Life.” The algorithms that Wolfram and his group wrote “are prototypes for what we might be able to do for everyone,” he said.

The system may someday end up serving as a kind of personal historian, as well as a potential coach for improving work habits and productivity. The data could also be a treasure trove for people writing their autobiographies, or for biographers entrusted with the information.

Wolfram has also scanned 2,30,000 pages of paper documents and, when possible, fed them through an optical character reader. He has at the ready his medical test data, complete genome, GPS location tracks, room-by-room motion sensor data and much more – all possible fodder for future analysis.

People, sometimes known as self-quants, have been hard at work in the medical arena. One is Larry Smarr, a computer science professor at the University of California, San Diego, who also directs the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology in La Jolla.

Smarr wears one wireless sensor to monitor the calories he burns and another to see how well he sleeps. He is keeping track of the bacteria in his body, about 100 different variables in his blood and many other fine points in his biochemistry.

After examining the data, he makes changes to improve his health. (So far, he’s lost weight and gained hours of deep sleep, he says.) “There’s so much information you can track,” Smarr says. “And the cost of measuring and analysing the data about ourselves just keeps on decreasing.”

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