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Would Metadata Have Caught Paul Revere?

Sociologist shows how social network analysis can single out key conspirators

Map of 1772 Boston social network.
Map of 1772 Boston social network.

Duke Sociologist Kieran Healey of the Kenan Institute for Ethics has written a brief primer on how one might use the sort of metadata available to National Security Agency snoops to figure out a burgeoning "terrorist" cell -- in 1772 Boston.

Written in a sort of pseudo-18th century grammar (with mostly modern spellings, thankfully) Healy walks through the steps one would take to turn the membership lists of various organizations into a matrix of connections showing who the key agitators might be.  

Using  this "Social Networke Analysis," but knowing nothing else about these names,  he quickly fingers Sam Adams and Paul Revere as "persons of interest."

The clever and instructive post has taken off on social media in the last day -- reaching 100,000 views on Tuesday, and spreading even more strongly on Wednesday. 

"I wanted to give non-specialists a sense of how the structural analysis of what's being called 'metadata' works, and to show in a fun but hopefully telling way how much you can get out of that approach," Healy wrote in his blog the next day. "So I tried to emphasize that I was using one of the earliest, and (in retrospect) most basic methods we have, but one that still has the capacity to surprise people unfamiliar with (social network analysis)."