SOCIETIES: Combining Pervasive Computing with Social Networks

SOCIETIES is a project to bring together social computing and pervasive computing into one overall framework that can be deployed to allow third party developers to provide next generation services beyond what is possible today. Pervasive computing is about making technology disappear into the background so that users can remain unaware that technology is acting on their behalf.

Pervasive computing uses information derived from the array of sensors and devices that make up the context of our digital lives. Context could be your location at given times of the day, the number of cars on the road or the weather. Any information that can be digitally discerned from our actions and interactions with our environment and that can be turned into data provides the context in which pervasive computing can work.

This context information can be combined with an individual user’s personal preferences for how they want technology to act on their behalf and how they in turn interact with technology. That enables them to make proactive decisions for the use of these services and be able to obtain a more personal and relevant experience.

The SOCIETIES project launched in October 2010 and there are sixteen partners. Eight are academic partners and eight are industrial partners. It is funded under Europe’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7.) SOCIETIES is the largest integrated project out of the fifth call for project submissions for FP7 and it is the only one that has been coordinated by an Irish academic partner. In this case the Telecommunications Software & Systems Group (TSSG) which is based in the Waterford Institute of Technology.

Kevin Doolin, Chief Engineer and Chair of the Scientific and Technical Board at TSSG, explains further, “We are merging pervasive computing with the whole area of social networking and social computing.

“The key thing in SOCIETIES is that we would be providing services that are context aware on behalf of an entire community of users rather than the individual users that have been catered for up until now.

“You have these smart phones, smart cars and smart offices but all these entities work in isolation. There is no real interoperability between the different smart environments that are out there.

“What we are doing in SOCIETIES is building a framework and bring these smart-spaces together so they can interoperate.

“You can have your own smart-space which would be you and all the devices that you own connected together. You could walk into a smart-office and your smart-space could actually connect into that smart-office environment, for example. And you can get access to various services within that office. It could also be in a supermarket or at the side of the street or anything else.

“With SOCIETIES we have taken that quite a step forward. We are dealing with communities of users and providing services for multiple users at the same time. There are many issues there. First of all, ‘How do you find the users that would form a community?’

“We could do that by social networks. We can mine data out of social networks. For example, if you go to a conference and you have an interest in pervasive computing and you’re subscribed to the SOCIETIES system we could then find out how many other people at that conference have similar interests to yourself. We could then join them to you digitally and share whatever you want to share; data, experiences, business cards, and everything would be done dynamically.”

It is not such a big step to go from the idea of technology being pervasive to the idea of it being intrusive. Privacy and security are notions that are still highly valued by many people despite claims that the Age of Privacy may be over.

As Kevin says, “Security, trust and privacy are critical issues to deal with. Everything I have said so far sounds like Big Brother, monitoring the users, following them everywhere and knowing their every move. But we can only do that if the user is happy for us to monitor them like that. We have a lot of research that has been done into users privacy requirements, security requirements and trust requirements.

“Using a social network as a context source isn’t something that is done at the moment. Combining that with personal preferences for a group of users is something that is very complicated to do. On top of that we have what we call a work package that is dealing with the personalization of services and taking proactive actions on behalf of the user. Then on behalf of the user within a community of users.

“Part of the challenge there is to actually learn about the users, their behaviours and how they interact with the technology and the services that are available.

“The integration of multiple different device types. Everything from your phone to your laptops, your digital photo frames, your fridge could potentially be integrated into this framework we are going to develop. So trying to develop an abstraction layer that will allow all these different devices to communicate and operate together is another one of the challenges we are going to face.”

Bringing together pervasive computing, the handling of data from derived from sensors in the environment and social networking technology is a daunting technical challenge. To accomplish this goal technologies will have to be created and developed that don’t exist yet. The future will have to be invented.

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