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In the wake of the Facebook emotion-gate scandal, I claim in an RSA blog that we need to 're-claim the algorithm'.

But what could that look like? Here's an example of algorithms 'for good', complete with user's testimonials and a brand new video!

Presenting: Social Mirror, the cuddly algorithm machine.

Social Mirror in Practice from The RSA on Vimeo.

Social Mirror combines tablet computers and algorithms to issue ‘social prescriptions’ in a digital form. It asks a series of questions about someone’s wellbeing, social connections, health and interests and then links them to activities and groups that might help or be of interest, thus addressing poor health, mental wellbeing and isolation.

Social Mirror came about we know that social prescribing can be very positive for people, but that its use depended on the practitioners. Does the local GP think it’s a worthwhile endeavour? Does the local GP know what is happening locally? We decided to put our local knowledge and connections in Knowle West to good use, combining them our community partner, the Knowle West Media Centre's local know-how with the RSA’s specialist knowledge in wellbeing science and social network analysis.

A retired gentleman who is isolated (has no social connections and/or says he is lonely) and has an interest in being active might be issued a prescription to a walking group:

“I can’t say enough about it because it has changed my life. If I hadn’t done it I wouldn’t have known about these walking groups. After I retired I felt like a recluse, three days a week I didn’t go out of the flat. I’ve now lost a stone in weight, I can talk to people quite freely which I didn’t before. I’ve stopped drinking alcohol - I don’t need it to help me sleep as the walks tire me out.”

A young mother who is new to the area (so comes up with a low community score), and does not know many people locally (so has very sparse connections), might be prescribed a children’s group:

“Social Mirror has made a massive impact in my life because when I moved here I had nobody and nothing. Going to groups through Social Mirror started the ball rolling – I’ve been going to groups for my children and for myself, I’ve made friends, and I know the area better. My life is a lot happier and more content now and I don’t feel so lonely.”


The future?

What happens when these algorithms are allowed to become bigger than us and our knowledge?  So far, we have coded based on knowledge and experience that is either in-house at the RSA, or easily accessible within our contacts. We based the questions and algorithms on our research with 3000 people across England, analysis of the ONS’s and the ESS wellbeing data-sets and what we know about social network and wellbeing theory (quite a lot!). We asked friends at the NEF wellbeing team for specialist advice, and did a LOT of testing with local people and community and health practitioners.

But none of us are pregnancy specialists. I don’t know much about being a teenage boy. We haven’t had to juggle being a full-time carer and a full-time mum. What happens if we had the resources to open our approach to health, social care and life experts? For example, pregnancy (and world cups football games!) are a major trigger for first-time domestic violence; pregnancy is often the first time that women come into contact with the state as adults: what are three questions I should be asking to make sure everything is ok?

This Social Mirror approach could work across so many fields: ask questions, apply simple algorithms, issue appropriate prescriptions. You take specialist knowledge, pare it down to a usable mathematical formula and apply it locally. As with everything, it would obviously be better to have the expert in the room, to have time for all the conversations, but until we invent cloning and time-travel then maybe something like this will have to do: Social Mirror becomes the central repository for the ‘pure’ knowledge, it then becomes applied locally on a case-by-case basis.

 Gaia Marcus is a Senior Researcher on the RSA Connected Communities project.

She is an Edgeryder and an UnMonk advisor, founded the RSA Social Mirror project and is ¼ of the ThoughtMenu.

This Summer she will be cycling 1000km in memory of our RSA colleague Dr Emma Lindley and

You can find her on twitter @la_gaia


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