Understanding Metadata: MIT Project Visualizes Your Life Using Gmail Data

A word that once belonged to conversations between technologists and academics was recently thrown into common parlance when news of the NSA’s massive data collection protocols broke. After years of relative obscurity, “metadata” made its national debut. And reporters on every media outlet started asking what it is, why the NSA wants it, and what they can do with it. César Hidalgo, a professor at the MIT Media Lab, has been studying these questions since 2004. Now metadata has the national spotlight, he has a chance to show what he’s been researching all along. To illustrate the power of metadata, Hidalgo and his students released a digital tool called Immersion that helps people visualize and understand the metadata in their lives.

To make definitions broadly, metadata is information about other data. For a digital photo it’d be details about the camera that took it. For a phone company, it’d be the duration and location of a call. For email: the sender, recipient, and time of message. Immersion uses those three components from email metadata to create a “people-centric” web of your life. To Hidalgo, data is an intensely personal thing. “Data basically doesn’t make sense without humans,” Hidalgo told the Boston Globe. “It involves interactions between people. And that’s why I think metadata has this emotional component: because ultimately, those interactions are the ones that we associate emotions with.”

The researchers consider email to be the oldest social network. Stretching back to the nascent years of the web, email has been collecting personal and professional communications. By mining the metadata tied to email, Immersion creates a tool for self-reflection. “When you see it all together, it is, in a way, an out-of-body experience,” says Hidalgo. Although his statement is hyperbolic, the premise is reasonable: by looking at a network of your connections, you can see not only your interactions with other people, but how those people connect to each other. That can’t be achieved without a topographic map of your data.

Based on how deep your email history goes, Immersion will create a unique map to fit your interactions. If your work and personal life stay separate, your web will represent that. Or if your recreational soccer team dominates your entire life, you’ll see it overwhelm your interactions with your significant other. According to its creators, Immersion is about “self-reflection, art, privacy and strategy.” The project leverages your history online to present you with a report on the capabilities of metadata, in addition to a look at the relationships in your life, which might even prompt you to evaluate them.

Due to the fact you have to give up your personal metadata to Immersion in order for the program to visualize it, Hidalgo and team have created a secure way for anyone to delete their web after creating it. “If you’re going to make platforms that deal with personal data,” Hidalgo told the Globe, “you have to develop ways of doing this in such a way that you can be transparent with the user about the data you have, how you’re handling it, and how the user can withdraw the data from your system.” If you have to sacrifice your privacy to evaluate it, the entire exercise is nullified.

It’s important to remember data itself is a neutral thing. Tools like Immersion show what can be done with it. But what can be a beautiful, self-reflective tool can easily become a dangerous and alarming map of your life. It’s not the data that does this, but rather how it’s used.


The Boston Globe

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