Collection No 5

Insights Sensing

Three Questions for Ben Waber

Sensing technologies in the workplace offer insights and raise questions.

Communication behaviors are hard to measure. Observing communication between individuals is likely to change the nature of the interaction, and surveys about communication offer an incomplete understanding of what took place. Ben Waber built upon research he began at the Human Dynamics Laboratory at M.I.T. by starting a company created to solve this problem. Using sensing technology, he and his colleagues have devised a method for measuring communication patterns in individuals. The result is a wearable sensing device capable of capturing face-to-face interactions, extracting social signals from speech and body movement, and measuring proximity and location of users. Together with software used to make meaning out of the data gathered, these devices allow companies to make decisions about how best to meet organizational goals through improved employee communication and engagement. We asked Ben to discuss a few of his thoughts on using sensors to track communication.


Your team developed a sensing device that measures real-world social behavior, including social signals from speech and body movement. How did you determine the specific data points you wanted to track?

At first we didn’t know precisely what features to measure, so our team at M.I.T. spent about three years in the laboratory using sensors to study human interaction and pulling out aspects of behavior that seemed to predict outcomes. We used decades of research from the social sciences as a guide. In the past those fields have used human coders to measure behaviors, so it wasn’t like we were going in blind. The behaviors we were measuring were just orders of magnitude more precise. For the next two years we started to deploy these devices in actual workplaces, enabling us to refine and validate those features.

Are the insights gained by effectively measuring communication behaviors useful only in the workplace? Do you envision a future where we use this type of technology in our personal lives?

Eventually these sensors will make their way into our clothing and the environment around us. It’s already started. We carry sophisticated sensors with us every day in the form of cell phones, and recently watches, glasses, and shoes have appeared with integrated sensing technology. The application of this data, however, is not in allowing us to directly visualize our behavior, but rather to seamlessly affect the world around us. Imagine lighting that changes to encourage activity, restaurant menus automatically reconfiguring so that we are encouraged (but not forced) to eat optimally. Or even our phones automatically calling a loved one if these sensors detect that they’re depressed. All possible, even likely, to happen within the next ten years.

What are the ethical and privacy considerations designers, researchers, and technologists must consider when developing this type of technology and analyzing the results?

The privacy risks of this technology should not be underestimated. If designers and technologists take a cavalier attitude towards privacy, consumers and businesses will not use these devices and we could find ourselves legislated out of existence. There are a few key tenets that we need to hold ourselves to:

  1. Opt-in participation
  2. Don’t record conversations
  3. Only show aggregate data to others
  4. Individuals own their data

Since we started Sociometric Solutions three years ago, we’ve embedded these tenants in our contracts and in our consent forms with participants. This has allowed us to achieve over 90% participation in every roll out we’ve done, as well as get real buy in from individuals and the company as a whole when it comes to using this technology to change.

Amy MacMillan

As global editor, Amy worked with frogs around the world to craft stories about the impact of design and technology on society.

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