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Javier Borge-Holthoefer: "The data we generate allows us to analyse society as an ecosystem"

Interview with Complex Systems' research group leader

How can physics help us to understand society's inner workings? Javier Borge-Holthoefer, research leader at the Complex Systems (CoSIN3) group at the UOC's Internet Interdisciplinary Institute (IN3), has been working on data science to try to explain the phenomena that influence societal dynamics. He has degrees in Philosophy and Computer Engineering, a master’s in Artificial Intelligence and a PhD in Complex Systems. Following a wide-ranging academic career that led him to become a researcher at the Qatar Computing Research Institute, Borge-Holthoefer now uses urban science to analyse how cities function like living organisms.

What are complex systems?

The study of complex systems began as a branch of statistical physics that sought to understand systems comprising millions of interacting particles. One of the most influential studies focused on thermodynamics, in which it was observed how colliding particles produce changes in temperature and pressure. Physicists realized that many of these formal aspects of physics could be used to study other systems; for example, to understand the inner workings of society, where people are the particles interacting in a complex manner. We see these complex systems as multidisciplinary, because a great number of other fields can also be applied, from economics to sociology. Researchers like us are really interested in complex interactions, such as those that determine the flow of traffic, to give one example.

What is the research group’s working methodology?

CoSIN3 comprises several engineers, like myself, who work with digital data. We take advantage of the easily accessible data generated by social media, our wireless devices or other devices that help cities run properly. Many areas are full of sensors that capture urban activity, whether it be the number of pedestrians walking around or the number of cars in circulation. Our job is to try and balance the theoretical and practical sides of these issues in order to generate useful models that explain real phenomena.

What is your team’s main project at the moment?

Our project is based on computational human ecology, which involves incorporating ecosystemic logic, typically reserved for the study of natural ecosystems, and applying it to cities. Our aim is to try and adapt a series of concepts to explain how humans behave within a city. Our societies have more to do with natural ecosystems than we realize.

But surely our needs are different to those of animals?

Humans, like animals, travel around in order to obtain a series of resources, only our strategies are much more complex. Animals tend to look for organic resources whereas we need other resources in our daily lives. Going to the cinema is a source of entertainment and we seek it out even though it’s not a question of life or death. We travel around the city in search of material resources, like going to the supermarket to buy food. But we also look for immaterial resources, which gives rise to other dynamics such as competitive interactions. How we compete with each other for the best job opportunities is one good example of this.

We do compete, but we also cooperate.

Cities are, in many ways, a great example of a cooperative system because large groups of us manage to live together in one space and in general achieve a certain state of peaceful and productive co-existence.

Are we aware of just how much information about our daily activity is collected to generate data on these interactions?

Not fully, no, because a lot of it is constantly being sent from our phones to a server. We don’t know what kind of information it is, who has access to it or what purpose it might serve.

What kind of data are you looking to gather as researchers?

All kinds of data. You could say that we are 'data hungry'. We are mostly interested in data that represent direct interaction between individuals, like from Twitter. We are also interested in data that establishes network relationships between people and places. It helps us to understand human ecology and what types of resources we consume in our cities.

Is people’s privacy not affected when data are collected?

Privacy is of the utmost importance. We’re not interested in who leaves their house by car in the morning, where they go or what route they take in order to offer them personalized marketing. Our way of looking at data could be used to help develop a motorway system free of traffic congestion, which would prove more sustainable both ecologically and economically.

Do you have a philosophy in terms of the data you observe?

We follow the same philosophy as original sociology. Sociologists have no interest in spying on people, but rather in understanding global social phenomena, why they occur and the conditions that have caused them.

Could you recommend a book that would help us to understand a bit more about your field of research?

I would recommend Linked, by Albert-Lszl Barabsi, a pioneer from the world of physics and first to introduce physical concepts to social environments. I think it’s accessible and easy to follow, as well as being half way between an academic read and information dissemination.