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See what e-mails may reveal about you


2 May 2011
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Most of us accumulate huge amounts of data in our lives - including e-mails, 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.

Dr 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 Dr 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".

Dr Wolfram, who lives in the Boston area, calls himself a "remote CEO" - interacting with his company, which is based in Champaign, Illinois, almost exclusively by e-mail and phone.

He has accumulated data on the job for decades - whether for hundreds of thousands of his outgoing e-mails 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'." 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 e-mail 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 e-mail. These words were different from the 33,000 or so that the system knew were in his standard lexicon.

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