Monday, March 18, 2013

Sociometric Badges: Big Advance or Big Brother?

The custom, or really requirement, of wearing an identification badge at work is part of the accepted routine for millions of workers worldwide.  But recently, psychology researchers have teamed up with engineers to develop something called a “sociometric badge.”  As reported in the December 2012 issue of IEEE Spectrum, the developers claim to be able to measure all sorts of remarkable things with these badges, ranging from the truth about how an organization really functions (as opposed to what the organization chart says) all the way up to worker happiness.  Well, maybe not happiness in the broad philosophical sense, but one particular work-related aspect of it called “flow”:  that state of mind sought by high achievers everywhere in which you are fully engaged in what you’re doing, and worries about the rest of the world seem to fall away. 

How do these badges work?  The Hitachi Business Microscope was one of the first ones to be developed, and it’s quite impressive.  Each employee to be studied is issued an card-shaped sensor on a lanyard to be worn around the neck.  Inside the card are a variety of sensors:  accelerometers to measure relative movement, infrared transmitters and receivers to detect when the card is near other cards, a microphone to pick up conversations, a wireless interface, and a flash memory, along with a lithium battery to run the thing.  During the day, it senses movements, conversations, and proximity to others, and logs all these things in a format that is downloaded at night to a central data-gathering location where, after a suitable amount of data has accumulated, researchers can consolidate the information in various ways.

In early experiments, users were also asked to keep their own diaries of daily activities.  Using the sociometric-badge data, the researchers identified certain times in which they said the users were experiencing “flow” or a similar pleasant immersion in productive tasks.  The correlation to what the subjects were actually doing, as recorded in their own personal diaries, was quite good.  In another study, two organizations that were thrown together by a corporate merger were examined to see how well the merger was going.  Network diagrams based on the sociometric data retrieved by the sensors showed that a month after the merger, the supposedly unified organization was still functioning like two independent outfits:  hardly anyone from Organization A was interacting with Organization B and vice-versa.  When the managers were shown this problem, they “took steps” (unspecified in the article) to fix it, and the success of their actions was also reflected in later data.

It’s understandable that working for a private company involves the giving up of certain rights and privileges that one would be reluctant to cede to the government, for example.  Companies have a right to snoop into one’s email or phone conversations that use company-owned facilities.  But it seems that a new line has been crossed with the sociometric badge.

For example, if anyone tried to do such an experiment at a university, the researchers would first have to get approval from the university’s Institutional Review Board, which is charged with the task of protecting the rights of human subjects in experiments.  If the researchers in the corporate world are publishing papers on their work, which they appear to be doing, they are performing research on human subjects, but nothing in the article says anything about permission being asked or granted for the experiments.  Presumably, wearing the badge was a condition of employment.

Why would anyone have qualms about wearing a sociometric badge?  Well, put it in old-fashioned terms, and imagine it was being done before the electronics was available to do this sort of thing unobtrusively. What if you got to work one day and found a private detective taking pictures of you every minute and writing down everything you said and the names of everyone you spoke with all day?  Most people would be creeped out by such intrusiveness, yet that is only a little more extreme than the kind of data the sociometric badge collects.  It may not be possible to reconstruct entire conversations or your exact location at all times from the badge data, but determined persons with ulterior motives could extract something close to that level of detail if they tried.

So far, no journalist to my knowledge has requested any sociometric-badge data under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).  But if this research is as effective as its proponents claim, sooner or later it will make its way into the public-service sector, where FOIA requests must be honored.  A rather cynical old professor I knew once told me that you should never write anything down that you would not want to show up on the front page of the New York Times.  If sociometric-badge data is ever subject to an FOIA request, public officials could have their every move for a given day show up in the newspapers, or whatever will pass for newspapers in the future.  This may be a disquieting prospect for some.

The branch of psychology used in this research is called “positive psychology,” meaning it studies the more appealing aspects of our psyches:  happiness, success, productivity, and so on, rather than the grimmer sides of our nature observed by abnormal psychology.  While that is all very well, even the definition of happiness itself is still a matter of dispute in philosophy, so the fact that some researchers are only trying to make people happier should not give them blanket permission to do anything they want.  Issues of privacy and freedom of association at least need to be addressed before the sociometric badge becomes more popular in both the corporate and the public sectors.  So far, that doesn’t seem to be happening.

Sources:  “Sensing Happiness” by K. Yano, S. Lyubomirsky, and J. Chancellor, appeared in IEEE Spectrum for December 2012 on pp. 32-37. 

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