See your metadata the way the NSA does

Boston’s bacon hot spots.
Boston’s bacon hot spots.

Highlights from, Boston’s source for innovation news.

Wondering what kind of information the National Security Agency can glean from your metadata? Try it on yourself: A new project from MIT’s Media Lab maps out your social networks by tapping into your e-mail metadata — similar to what the NSA does, according to its recently disclosed data gathering.

Immersion looks at who you e-mailed to build up a precise map of friendships, professional contacts, and other intertwinings, all within a few minutes of getting access to your GMail account. (So far, the program supports only Google’s popular e-mail service).

Within half an hour, it had 300,000 of my e-mails, showing where college friendships bled into professional networks that dipped into various circles of friends, all based on the humble TO: and CC: fields. It was a much more intimate graph than Facebook has ever shown me, for sure.


The project’s official launch is timely, and one of the site’s creators says academics have talked about the importance of metadata for years with little public resonance — until the leaks about the NSA.

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“It’s like the world is catching up to what a fringe group of academics was aware of in 2004 and 2005,” said César Hidalgo. “Nobody liked [thinking about metadata], and nobody cared about us, and they all thought that working with mobile phone records or e-mails was sort of a curiosity or a stupidity.”


Yelp maps Hub’s hipster hot spots

Maybe we should rename the Back Bay the Bacon District: A new mapping tool from Yelp shows where various keywords are concentrated among reviewers, helping users uncover the city’s unheralded hipster, chowder, and patio hot spots.

The Yelp Wordmap is a heat map showing how often certain keywords used in Yelp reviews appear in specific locations, suggesting patterns of local activity or popular choices. Some suggested searches from Yelp:








 PBR (See also: hipster)



Retaking the helm at Warp Drive Bio

Serial entrepreneur Gregory Verdine is back running Warp Drive Bio, a company he cofounded to develop drugs from microbes. A professor of chemistry at Harvard University with a lengthy resume, Verdine’s other companies include Enanta Pharmaceuticals in Watertown, which raised $56 million in an initial public offering in March.

The company had been run by Alexis Borisy, a partner at the Boston venture capital firm Third Rock Ventures, which was among the investors that provided Warp Drive with $125 million in funding last year. Borisy will remain on Warp Drive’s board as executive chairman.

“The significant progress and rapid advances that Warp Drive Bio has made in developing our proprietary technologies . . . over the past year are nothing short of staggering,” Borisy said.

Warp Drive aims to identify and develop what it calls “nature’s drugs” by mapping the genomes of microbes in soil. The company is compiling a searchable database that it hopes will reveal natural therapies for diseases that have proven resistant to other drugs.

Such drugs are “hiding in plain sight, literally in the soil of our own backyards,” Verdine said.

In addition to elevating Verdine to chief executive, Warp Drive named veteran biotech executive James Nichols chief operating officer and appointed Julian Adams to the board of directors. Adams is president of research and development at Infinity Pharmaceuticals of Cambridge.

Callum Borchers


Epizyme enjoying the public life

A month after its initial public offering, Epizyme Inc. is back to the business of developing cancer drugs. Its lead candidate, which targets a form of leukemia, is in early-stage clinical trials. Executives hope to build a significant company here.

“The goal is to get drugs to patients,” chief executive Robert J. Gould said in his fourth floor office at 400 Technology Square. “I believe and our investors believe that we can best do that by being independent.”

Biotechnology start-ups have been on a tear, accounting for 11 of the 21 IPOs of venture-backed companies nationally in the second quarter, the highest number in 13 years, according to Thomson Reuters and the National Venture Capital Association. Epizyme, which hit the high end of its $13 to $15 price range and raised $77.1 million in late May, was one of several biotechnology IPOs last quarter in the Boston area.

The company works in the emerging field of epigenetics. Based on its “biological understanding” of genetically driven cancers, it is creating drugs than can inhibit a class of enzymes that control gene expression and sometimes produce genetic alterations in cells that cause cancer.

Epizyme is also working with other collaborators to develop diagnostics that can identify cancer-causing genetic alterations in enzymes.

Robert Weisman