Visualize Your Emails From the Last Three Years

A project out of MIT compiles metadata from peoples' Gmail accounts to show how they are sending out messages.


The NSA knows what peoples’ social networks look like (allegedly), so there is no reason account holders shouldn’t know themselves.

A new program created by graduate students at MIT’s Media Lab allows users to visualize how they have been sending out emails over the last three years, and tracks exactly who they have been sending them to.

Called a “people-centric view of your email life,” Deepak Jagdish, one of the developers of the “Immersion” program, said the main motivation of the project was to show that email and peoples’ inboxes can be represented in many different ways, and not just in the plain text versions that they always see them in. “When it comes to emails, the most important thing is other people, and this shows what your patterns look like,” he said.

The fact that this collection of “metadata” was released after the controversy surrounding news that the NSA had been tapping into peoples’ email and phone records was coincidental, however, and was not the thrust used to develop Immersion, he said.

But it couldn’t have come at a better time. Immersion serves as a mini-indicator that can help better explain what metadata is, and how it works, on a basic level, using descriptive diagrams.

By plugging in a personal account, users get a snapshot of all their activity as it pertains to messages to friends, family and other people over the span of the last few years. That data is shown in the form of colored circles, each representing a certain amount of emails and the frequency of which they were distributed. It also shows how emails may be connected to each other.

According to the project details, once a person signs in, Immersion will use only the “From, To, Cc and Timestamp” fields of the emails in the account. It will not access the subject or the body content of any of the emails.

The information can be broken down to individual emails, which show when messages were sent, or by year, month, and even day. “It shows you that there is a lot more to your email data than what you see normally, and a lot more can be understood about you as a person when you look at the metadata,” said Jagdish. “It if contributes to the overall discussion of metadata right now, however, we are happy to contribute to that.”

The project first started last year, and has been on display in the MIT Lab, allowing hundreds of users to access it and visualize their personal accounts. Jagdish and the other developers behind the project released the fully-public version of Immersion at the end of June. While the first version is complete, an updated program may be next up, and could include more in-depth information about email use.