I owe a lot to maps. Eight years ago, as an undergraduate physics major, I set aside my quantum mechanics textbooks for a summer and started working on a different problem, one that involved people. My advisor at the time was Nathan Eagle, then a post-doc at the Santa Fe Institute and now CEO and co-founder of Jana. We were working with a data set of a million criminal offense reports from the Philadelphia police department trying to apply new techniques from data mining and machine learning to figure out if “crime waves” really existed. I had worked with data before, but marking a dot on a blank (digital) canvas for each crime and watching the outline of a city emerge broke through the layer of abstraction between numbers in a spreadsheet and the fact that they were generated by and reflections of real people and communities. Maps are particularly good at this because we have all spent so much time reading them and are able to orient ourselves within them using landmarks and other visual patterns. They connect us to the data they show by giving us a common perspective.
After that summer, I spent the next 8 years plotting digital breadcrumbs on maps. My PhD work focused on building methods and tools to extract patterns of human mobility and social behavior from mobile phone data and the apps that run on them. Armed with these new insights, we worked with urban and transportation planners to better understand how people used cities and we could make them better (e.g. reduce congestion or better plan bus routes). While much of this work was done in places like the United States, where there are resources to dedicate to collecting data using census or surveys, the real promise lay in emerging markets that lacked institutional resources to collect data from traditional sources. Our work showed that it is possible to get this critical information from devices being carried around in the pockets of nearly every person on the planet.
Now at Jana, I’m excited to use these tools to solve another billion person problem: making sure the internet is affordable for everyone. Through our app, mCent, Jana already offers a variety of ways to earn free airtime and discover great apps in the process. With our users’ permission, we are constantly trying to improve their experience by using data, such as their device’s location, to recommend apps that are more relevant to them. While we have big goals and a lot of hard engineering work ahead, watching the dots pile up and seeing the outlines of countries and cities emerge still gives me the same moment of joy that it did eight years ago.
At Jana, our mission is to help a billion people get online and now they’re on the map as well.
PS – By the way, we’re hiring! Head over to our careers page and apply today!