5x5x5: Rick Smolan Of 'The Human Face Of Big Data' Talks About Transformative Tech

In partnership with the Social Innovation Summit, we're running a series called 5x5x5 -- 5 Leaders, 5 Sectors, 5 Questions. Five guests from a variety of sectors will answer questions on how technology and innovation can be used for social good.

Our latest installment features Rick Smolan, author of "The Human Face Of Big Data" in conversation with Brian Sirgutz, Senior Vice President -- Social Impact, at the Huffington Post. We asked Smolan about the process of collecting, visualizing and interpreting large amounts of data, a trend in technology he thinks will eventually become more important than the Internet.

Brian: Everyone seems to have a different definition of the phrase "big data." Can you explain what you think big data is and how do you think its impact will compare to that of the Internet?

To me, big data is the real-time visualization of data streaming in from satellites, and from billions of sensors, RFID tags, and GPS-enabled cameras and smartphones. Collectively, this data is enabling humanity to sense, measure, understand, and affect aspects of our existence in ways our ancestors could never have imagined.

When we began this project, I was skeptical of the many claims I heard -- like the idea that big data might one day turn out to be more transformative than the Internet. Having now spent a year working with more than 200 journalists, designers, writers and programmers in order to capture how this new tool set is touching our lives, I’ve become a convert.

Brian: Your book, "The Human Face Of Big Data," features many lesser known ways that big data is changing society. What are some of the best examples of this?

We feature a woman named Yasmine Delewari Johnson who learned she was pregnant. To get a glimpse into her daughter's future, she turned to a company called 23AndMe, a personal genetics company that uses DNA analysis to help people gain insights into their inherited health traits. She found out she had a 28 percent chance of developing coronary heart disease, along with other statistics.

Another fascinating example is the work being done by a 29-year-old MacArthur Fellow named Shwetak Patel, who discovered that every electronic device in a home has a unique digital signature. Using it, he found that the DVR in an average American living room uses 11 percent of the household’s total power each month. So instead of drilling another oil well, he says we could reduce our power bill as a nation -- by 5 percent -- just by redesigning the DVR.

Brian: Can you tell us a little about "The Human Face Of Big Data" iPad app and the Book Viewer app that goes along with the book?

We’ve created two apps to broaden the audience for our "Human Face of Big Data" project.

The first is a free viewer app, for iOS and Android that was designed as a companion to the book. When viewers point the camera in their smart devices at a photo in the book, a YouTube video will play.

The second application is a standalone iPad app that adds expanded, interactive content to some of the stories in the book. In a story about the riots in Greece, you can hear the roars of the crowd while protester tweets float across the screen. In a different story, it lets you compare two seemingly identical bottles of medicine to discover which one is genuine and which is counterfeit.

The iPad app costs $2.99, and all of the profits are being donated to charity: water, a nonprofit that helps bring clean water to struggling communities around the world.

Brian: You use the metaphor of “opening up a second eye” when you speak about big data. Where did that come from?

My son Jesse is 10 years old. One day, he said, "Dad, every time you’re on the phone, I hear you say big data, big data. What is big data?"

I was struggling for an analogy, so I said, "Jesse, imagine if your whole life you had been looking through one eye and all of a sudden for the first time in your life you were able to open up a second eye. You're not just getting more data. You're not getting more vision. You’re getting a new dimension, an entirely new way of seeing what was right in front of you."

He said, "Is that what computers do?" I said, "Exactly." He said, "Could a computer open up a third eye and fourth and a thousand eyes?" If you're 10 years old, a thousand eyes is really cool. I said, "Yeah, that's exactly what computers are doing."

Brian: You also claim that big data is enabling the planet to evolve "a central nervous system." What do you mean by that?

Last year, I had no idea what big data meant. The first person I asked to define the phrase for me said, "It's so much information that it wouldn’t fit on your hard drive." I said to myself, "OK, so what?" The next person I spoke with referred to overlapping data sets and looking for patterns inside -- it just sounded like a better way to sell things to people.

Then, I talked to my friend Marissa Mayer, who was then at Google and now runs Yahoo. She said, "Rick, it's like our planet is developing a nervous system." That caught my attention and I just said, "Tell me more."

Check out examples of the way in which big data is changing our world in the slideshow below.

The Human Face Of Big Data