Eric Paulos' Research on Familiar Stranger Helping to Combat COVID-19

23 Apr, 2020

Eric Paulos' Research on Familiar Stranger Helping to Combat COVID-19

In 2003, BCNM Professor Eric Paulos conducted research with Elizabeth Goodman on the Familiar Stranger.

From the research paper:

The Familiar Stranger is a social phenomenon first addressed by the psychologist Stanley Milgram in his 1972 essay on the subject. Familiar Strangers are individuals that we regularly observe but do not interact with. By definition, a Familiar Stranger (1) must be observed, (2) repeatedly, and (3) without any interaction.

In the study, Paulos and Goodman discuss the concept of digital tagging individuals' interactions and to find who is a Familiar Stranger for another person. They coin this digital tagging apparatus to be a Jabberwocky.

From the research paper:

The principle metaphors of Jabberwockies are "digital scents" and "digital tagging". As individuals traverse an urban landscape, they simply infuse their path with a unique and detectable digital redolence. Similarly, fixed places/objects can also emit unique "scents" once they are "digitally tagged". These scents and tags are localized and map nicely upon many of today's low power radios and personal wireless protocols such as Bluetooth.

The paper continues to look at and use Jabberwockies to detect and study the role of Familiar Strangers.

Fast forward to today, MIT researchers such as Ron Rivest are using this Familiar Stranger research on their efforts to combat the current COVID-19 pandemic. Using the same concepts as Jabberwockies, MIT researchers are hoping to use Bluetooth to trace interactions among people. This time around, the tracking of Familiar Strangers would function more to detect the transmission of the novel coronavirus between individuals who may have come into contact with each other, even if just briefly.

From the article:

Rivest’s team has designed a system, called Private Automated Contact Tracing (PACT), where your phone would constantly emit a random string of numbers, like an anonymous ID, via Bluetooth signal. Your phone would also keep a running list of any Bluetooth signals and their associated numbers that it detects within a certain set of parameters—such as within 6 or 7 feet, for a duration of 10 minutes or more.

When people test positive for the virus, a public health official would give them a QR code to scan in the app, which would trigger the upload of their entire Bluetooth ID log to the cloud. Then, anyone who has the app on their phone would receive a notification if they happened to be in close contact with the infected person—which could encourage them to enter into self-quarantine.

Learn more about Paulos' and Goodman's research from 2003 here. Read more about MIT's COVID-19 research here.