Intel Labs work: Civic hacking, seeking value in data and more

It’s a weekend for hacks. The National Day of Civic Hacking means there could be a whole lot of coding going on around the country in an effort to solve local, state and national problems — thanks in part to Intel, its corporate sponsor. It’s just one of the projects the Santa Clara chip maker is backing as part of the work of Intel Labs, which is seeking to understand how technology and access to data can help improve our lives.

In a phone interview last week, Intel Labs senior researcher Ken Anderson talked about the goals of his team, the user experience group.

“Four or five years ago, people started to offer things they hadn’t realized had value before,” Anderson said. He cited Airbnb (an exchange for renting out rooms or homes to travelers) and Parkatmyhouse (a service that allows people to offer parking spaces in their driveways) as examples of people using social data. He and his team — which is more than 100 strong and includes anthropologists like himself, engineers, designers and more — got to thinking about “what people can do with their data if they have more kinds of it.”

For example, Asthmapolis is a free mobile app that helps those with asthma record symptoms and attacks. Parents can receive alerts when their kids use their inhalers. If users opt in, the app can track their locations whenever they press their inhalers.  That data can then be shared with physicians, and can be aggregated anonymously. This can be useful for seeing where users have problems with air quality, Anderson said. (New) In Intel’s field studies in Chicago, some participants used Asthmapolis. (End new) Intel was a sponsor and helped form the framework for the research for Ashtmapolis, according to a company spokeswoman.

As people upload information to places such as Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare and Yelp, or monitor their physical activity and eating habits with FitBit, Anderson says Intel Labs wants to help develop tools and technology that can take that data and use it for broader purposes.

“Your data alone becomes uninteresting after a while,” Anderson said. What interests his team is how that information can be pooled with open data sets to help find solutions to problems that affect more people.

He said one of the goals for the National Day of Civic Hacking — in the Bay Area, there will be events at Google in Mountain View, plus San Francisco and Oakland this weekend — is to “motivate developers to start thinking about more than just personal data apps. How can we provide new and surprising insights for people?” Others involved with organizing the hacking extravaganza include consulting firm SecondMuse and Code for America, a San Francisco non-profit that matches up geeks with government, as we’ve written before.

What’s in it for Intel? Besides helping develop apps and sponsoring hackathons, the user experience group at Intel Labs is busy conducting field trials and working with the World Economic Forum on policy issues.

It’s “not totally a philanthropic effort,” Anderson said. “Intel finds value whenever people find value in their technology.” More devices means more need for chips and servers, after all. With the traditional PC market slowing down, what Anderson’s team is working on could help Intel and other big technology companies change with the times.

As for privacy concerns surrounding all this sharing of data, Intel Labs supports transparency and giving consumers control over their information. It’s a sponsor of We The Data, a group that seeks to find a balance between innovation and the privacy implications of data sharing. Anderson also said “we want people to have access to their data, regardless of where it’s housed.”

Correction: This post originally stated that Asthmapolis was sponsored by Intel, but the Intel spokeswoman who provided us with the information was mistaken. 


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