“Check the map,” says the voice in the commercial. “Verizon’s super fast 4GLTE is the most reliable and in more places than any other 4G network.”
But is it truly the most dependent, the most widespread?
In fact, there’s no way of knowing: “There’s absolutely no useful quantitative data for comparison purposes,” according to mobile systems expert Dave Choffnes, an assistant professor in Northeastern’s College of Computer and Information Science. And that means we have no control over the performance and reliability of our mobile Internet use.
Last year, the number of people using mobile devices to access the Internet surpassed the number of people using desktop computers to log online. While “most eyeball time is on devices,” Choffnes said, mobile performance is nowhere near what we expect from our desktop experiences. Researchers like him would need much more data to even begin bringing mobile Internet use up to speed—literally.
“Ideally we’d have measurements from everywhere on every network all the time,” he said. “And then we’d want to correlate that with where we use our phones and what applications we use on our phones. And then you can imagine with all that information we could spit out a number and say this carrier is going to give you the best overall performance.”
But collecting that data is easier said than done—presumably, mobile providers would have done it by now if it weren’t. One hurdle is that users need to opt-in to donating their data, explained Choffnes, since doing so means giving up some of their expensive data-plan as well as precious battery life. As a result, he said, “we have to give an incentive.”
To that end, Choffnes has created a code that could send data to the developers of a mobile app once it has been installed on a smartphone. Developers could incorporate this code into whatever apps they create, but users will only opt in to those that are the most entertaining and useful.
For instance, Choffnes envisions an app that would allow two users to pit their mobile speeds against each other. Or one that provides real-time information about a phone’s performance to inform which network provider one should choose.
In another project, which he’s calling Meddle, Choffnes is using the same approach to incentivize users into donating their data for research. Along with limited performance and reliability control, mobile users also lack control over how their apps share their data with the rest of the Internet.
Meddle is not itself an app, but rather a proxy network through which all of a phone’s traffic must pass before accessing a website or app. Traditionally, the privacy (or lack thereof) of that journey is governed by the app through which the user is traveling. Meddle encrypts everything it sends and receives, which instantly improves a user’s privacy experience.
Additionally, Meddle allows users to view their activity—and the activity of their apps—online. When we click “agree” to an app’s terms, we often give it permission to share our data with other parts of the web. Meddle users can view a map of that activity and shut down any unwanted data sharing, provided it doesn’t interfere with the app’s functionality.
In exchange for these improvements, users agree to share all their activity data with Choffnes, but only after it’s been scrubbed for anonymity. Choffnes then uses it to investigate the performance, reliability, and privacy of mobile network traffic. “If we can’t see what devices are doing, we can’t optimize them to work well all the time,” he said.
Facebook is home to nearly 3 billion photos. Every minute, YouTube grows by another 100 hours of video. And, according to IHS Research, some 30 million surveillance cameras pepper our public spaces, collecting nearly 4 billion hours of footage each week. Needless to say, there’s a lot of image data that’s ripe for the picking.
Content like this helped break criminal cases such as the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. But if we want to carry on with similar successes, we’ll need ever more sophisticated algorithms to parse the data deluge.
For his part, Northeastern University assistant professor Raymond Fu is working to improve the current state-of-the-art of biometrics software, which automatically distinguishes between different categories of people as well as between individuals themselves.
Fu’s research recently earned him one of two Young Investigator awards from the International Neural Network Society in 2014. “This is a real honor and inspires me to keep up the good work,” said Fu, a machine-learning expert who holds joint appointments in the College of Engineering and the College of Computer and Information Science.
Backed by funding from Samsung Research of America, the research and development arm of the international electronics company, Fu has recently begun developing visual recognition software for use on social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter.
“When people share facial images on social networks, those images are in the wild. So you have unconstrained data—meaning it’s not collected in the lab under controlled conditions,” said Fu. “It can be from multiple cameras, multiple resources, so the data has a lot of variables.”
To circumvent this problem, his algorithm ranks the information in all of the images and quickly tosses out any outliers. “If something is very different from the rest of the images, our algorithm can rule it out and mitigate noise,” he explained.
The software can “learn” a person’s unique face and use that information to leverage the vast stores of image data online to understand society or inform investigations. For instance, Fu’s algorithms could help identify what types of people turn out at a protest, he said, by recognizing general characteristics rather than individual ones: Are the people photographed at demonstrations such as Occupy Wall Street carrying cameras and notebooks, and thus likely journalists? Are there more uniform-donning policemen than protestors?
Of course, advertisers and corporations could also use this data for less-noble pursuits, such as targeting their products at particular groups or individuals. “There is always a trade off between privacy and services,” said Fu. “Everything I’m doing uses data that’s publically available. We’re trying to provide the best models for analyzing it.”
It’s up to the rest of us—you and me and our representatives—to determine how we should use those models.
The evidence is clear that Albert László Barabási, a world-renowned network scientist and Distinguished University Professor of Physics at Northeastern University, has enjoyed a successful career. As the founding professor of Northeastern’s network science program, Barabási is a “brilliant and motivated” scholar, in the words of his graduate advisor, Gene Stanley, himself a distinguished professor of physics at Boston University.
Barabási has published four books and 142 papers, which have collectively received more than 100 thousand citations. He’s even got a Kevin Bacon number of one, thanks to his appearance alongside the Hollywood actor in a movie called “Connected,” according to Larry Finkelstein, dean of the College of Computer and Information Science. As Murray Gibson, dean of the College of Science, put it, “you can’t hide from the obvious impact of his work.”
But on Monday at a ceremony installing him as the inaugural Robert Gray Dodge Professor of Network Science, Barabási asked whether all these accolades actually made him a good hire back in 2009.
In his inaugural lecture that focused on the “science of success,” Barabási noted the measures are consistently used to determine a researcher’s success in the scientific community: a journal’s impact factor and a paper or researcher’s total citation count. “We love to hate these numbers,” explained Barabási, because they don’t actually do a very good job of predicting the future impact of a paper or success of a career.
In a new line of research for his lab, Barabási’s team is developing a more mathematically robust way of measuring success. They’ve examined it in the context of physics research papers and are beginning to expand it into other broad-ranging areas, including the success of a Twitter feed.
Thankfully to those in attendance Monday who hired him five years ago, Barabási can use these methods to predict continued success for his own career.
While a researcher’s single blockbuster success often comes in his or her first 10 years on the job, there is actually no predictive value in that timeline for future success. Based on productivity, he said, “we can’t see success coming nor do we really learn from it.”
Instead, things like an individual’s “excellence parameter”—a measure of how he compares to his peers in the way he addresses the world’s challenges—is much more important than their total citations, the impact of the journals they publish in, or even their overall productivity. We can find an accurate measure of success, Barabási said, “you just have to look at the right variables.”
In closing remarks, Stephen W. Director, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, noted that Robert Gray Dodge, for whom Barabási’s new professorship is named, was essentially the university’s first professor. “I think it’s fitting that he started something brand new and achieved great success,” said Director, noting that is precisely what Barabási has done since joining the Northeastern faculty and spearheading the nation’s first program in network science.
“One thing I learned through network science,” Barabási said, “is that a network is useless as a set of nodes. It’s all about the links.” Northeastern, he said, has allowed him to pursue those links in order to maintain the high level of work in which his lab is engaged.
President Joseph E. Aoun noted that before commencing his tenure at Northeastern, Barabási demanded only one thing: “an environment conducive to building the best program in the country.” When Aoun asked how he proposed to do that, Barabási said it was simple—just bring in the best people at all levels. “This is what has happened,” Aoun said.
While success may now be accurately measured through complicated mathematics thanks to Barabási’s work, what matters most may still be the collaborations and links that allow a researcher to sustain such work.
Northeastern University and the city of Boston opened a new chapter in their long partnership on Friday morning when city officials joined university leaders to break ground on Northeastern’s state-of-the-art Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Complex on Columbus Avenue.
In his remarks, Northeastern University President Joseph E. Aoun told the hundreds of people in attendance, including Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, Boston City Councilor Tito Jackson, and state Rep. Jeffrey Sanchez of Jamaica Plain, that the new complex would benefit the Northeastern community as well as the entire city.
“You can look at this complex from different perspectives,” Aoun said. “Yes, it is going to serve the students. Yes, it is going to serve our faculty. And yes, it is going to serve the community. But more importantly it is going to bring every constituency together.”
The 220,000-square-foot research and educational space is part of Northeastern’s ongoing effort to expand its capacity to engage in path-breaking research across disciplines. Scheduled to open in 2016, it will include wet and dry lab facilities, educational laboratories, classroom space, and offices for faculty and graduate students.
“A science complex of this scale has the chance to be a shining example of the best Boston has to offer,” Walsh said in his remarks. “This facility will attract some of the world’s best minds in the most cutting edge fields of research. The work they will do will change the world in ways we can’t even imagine yet.”
The ISEC will be the first private research development in Roxbury and is expected to create more than 600 jobs during the construction phase and an additional 700 jobs after the complex opens.
“The future of our university is imminently linked to the well being of the Roxbury community and Boston as a whole,” Aoun said. “You need us. But more importantly, we need you.”
The six-story, LEED-certified facility will feature cutting-edge scientific equipment and lab space, both of which will be shared by researchers from Northeastern’s College of Science, Bouvé College of Health Sciences, College of Engineering, and College of Computer and Information Science.
“The most significant word in the name of this building is interdisciplinary,” Stephen W. Director, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, said in his remarks. “Our research focuses on finding solutions to the global challenges in the areas of health, sustainability, and security. Solutions to these challenges require the collaboration of many minds working together in many fields.”
Miles Graham, a seventh-grader at the Match Charter Public School in Boston, said the new facility would help Boston youth realize their dreams of becoming successful scientists and engineers. “This new building represents a bigger and better opportunity for Boston’s youth,” he explained. “This is how dreams become real.”
Michael Karolewski, comptroller for the Northeastern Student Government Association, noted that the new complex would offer students more research opportunities than ever before.
“It’s hard to believe, but there will be even more opportunities for students like me to learn in their own disciplines and have the potential to communicate across these other disciplines,” said Karolewski, DMSB’16.
Walsh was particularly excited about the project’s plan to construct a unique pedestrian bridge over the MBTA Orange Line, commuter rail, and Amtrak tracks. The bridge—similar to New York City’s “Highline”—will connect two distinct sections of Northeastern’s campus and bolster the university’s strong ties to the Roxbury and Fenway neighborhoods.
“Building bridges is what universities should be all about,” Walsh said.
The site’s development provides an opportunity to strengthen the Columbus Avenue corridor, improve pedestrian connections, and create new open space and streetscape amenities to be shared with the surrounding community. The project represents an investment by the university of about $225 million.
The new science complex is a key part of Northeastern’s Institutional Master Plan to strengthen ties with the local community and the city. University officials developed the plan over the past two years in collaboration with faculty, students, staff, city planners, and campus neighbors. The Boston Redevelopment Authority approved the plan on Nov. 14, 2013.
Northeastern has increased its annual research funding by more than 100 percent since 2006, and it has received more than $98 million in external research funding in 2013. The university is also diversifying its research funding by deliberately increasing support from philanthropic and corporate sources, not just government grants.