The Human Face of Big Data: An Interview with Rick Smolan

Big Data is nothing less than fascinating, as many books on the subject evince. There are so many applications, so many facets of our lives that will be changed. To this end, I recently sat down with fellow Big Data author Rick Smolan to talk about his new book, The Human Face of Big Data and the iPad app that supports it. Following is an excerpt of our discussion.

Q. The Human Face of Big Data follows your tremendously successful Day in the Life series and America 24/7. How you put these projects together and is there a common theme that links them?

A. Our projects have always been about teamwork. Every 18 months we gather a global tribe of nearly 200 researchers, photographers, writers, illustrators and designers and we challenge them to collaborate in capturing the human face of something new on the horizon, a topic in its infancy. These projects have focused on the Internet the year it began to impact peoples lives ("24 Hours in Cyberspace"), on how the human race is learning to heal itself ("The Power to Heal") and the global water crisis ("Blue Planet Run").

Q. What was your overall goal in producing The Human Face of Big Data?

A. The ability to collect, analyze, triangulate and visualize vast amounts of data in real time is something the human race has never had before. This new set of tools, often referred by the lofty term "Big Data" has begun to emerge as a new approach to addressing some of the biggest challenges facing our planet. Some of the experts we interviewed in the course of putting the project together have gone so far as to describe this as being akin to the planet suddenly developing a nervous system. We thought this would be the perfect time to spark a thoughtful global conversation about a set of emerging technologies that have the potential to have a bigger impact on civilization than the Internet.

Q. You made publishing history with your book, America 24/7, by inviting the public to shoot and submit photos alongside the world's top professionals and you also enabled readers to customize their book covers. That book was an enormous success. Now you've added a smartphone app to this project to allow the public to share and compare information. How does this project represent "crowdsourcing?"

A. The Human Face of Big Data is by far the most ambitious and far-reaching body of work that our team has ever attempted. To encourage people around the globe to participate we built an app that enables anyone with a smartphone to anonymously compare and share their lives over a two-month period. Utilizing the sensors in smartphones phones, combined with responses to thought provoking questions, the app allows participants around the globe to share and compare views on family, sleep, trust, sex and luck. The app is available in eight languages: English, Mandarin (simplified), Japanese, Portuguese, Spanish, French, Korean and Russian.

Q. How did select the photographs that appear in the book?

A. We put together a team of top researchers who spent months finding photographs and compiling assignments for professional photographers that we dispatched around the world. Our first priority was to make sure the photographs would be geographically, ethnically, economically and thematically diverse. The pictures have an amazing sense of intimacy - people in more than 30 countries are featured and in every case the theme is about how data, sometimes big and sometimes soon to be big, is touching such an astounding array of human life around the world today.

Q. Were their certain guidelines or criteria you followed in choosing the photographs featured in the book? How many people were involved in the selection process?

A. We invited a talented group of over 200 men and women whose careers included senior positions at Time, Newsweek, Sports Illustrated, Rolling Stone, the NY Daily News, National Geographic, GEO Magazine, etc. We challenged this team to find evocative, surprising, amusing, touching images that resonate with people of all ages and backgrounds. Some of the pictures in The Human Face of Big Data will bring tears to your eyes, others are so surprising or memorable that you just have to show them to your friends and family.

Q. How do you explain the concept of Big Data to the average person?

A. My ten year old son recently heard me speaking on the phone about this project and asked me asked me what Big Data is. I struggled to come up with an analogy that would make sense to him and finally said, "Imagine if the whole human race had been looking through one eye for all of our existence and all of a sudden, scientists gave us the ability to open up a second eye. You're not just getting more information, more data; you're literally getting a whole new dimension. You're getting depth and perspective, 3D vision. That's what Big Data is, not simply more information but a new way to see or extract meaning from a sea of information." He asked if computers could let us open up a third and a fourth and even a thousandth eyes? And I said "yes, exactly" that's what's beginning to happen all over the world - Big Data is giving us a brand new way to see things.

Q. What are some of your favorite stories in The Human Face of Big Data?

A. There are a number of fascinating stories included in The Human Face of Big Data represent some of the most innovative applications of data that are shaping our future. Here are a couple of my favorites: Shwetak Patel is a 27-year-old MacArthur Fellow that has invented a chip you plug into your house that recognizes the digital signature of every appliance that consumes electricity. This provides the type of itemized insight into energy consumption that hasn't existed before and can lead to greater efficiencies how we consume energy. For instance, he average American spends 11% of their electrical bill on their DVR. If we were to reengineer the DVR, we would cut America's energy bill by 5%. The book also shines a spotlight into how we are now taking data sets and extracting greater meaning from them that we weren't able to in the past. Researchers John Guttag and Collin Stultz have created a computer model to analyze formerly discarded EKG data of heart attack patients. By sifting through the massive quantities of data and applying the model, they've discovered patterns we've never seen before. By identifying patterns in the data that lead to greater risk, their model has the potential to significantly improve today's risk screening techniques, which misidentify roughly 70% of patients likely to have a repeat heart attack.

Q. The Human Face of Big Data represents a unique partnership with home cloud computing and IT solutions provider EMC. Why did EMC collaborate with you on a book that includes no product promotion? What were their main contributions to the project? Are there any other companies that helped support this project?

A. EMC, known and respected widely in the business world, is not a company name known to many consumers. But they're a real leader in the field and the business of Big Data, by helping IT departments to store, manage, protect and analyze their most valuable asset -- information. EMC recognized that by helping us spark a global conversation about Big Data - what it is, what its potential is - not just for business, but also for humanity - would be a good way to connect the company to the public more widely. EMC has been a great partner throughout the course of this project, and their support has been essential towards making it such a success. The Human Face of Big Data project is also receiving support from leading global companies like FedEx, who delivered the book to 10,000 of the most influential people in 30 countries on December 4, including world leaders, Fortune 500 CEOs, Pulitzer prize winners, and more. Additional key partners include Cisco and SAP.

Q. You are also releasing an interactive iPad app to supplement the stories told in the book. Why was it important to you to use the iPad as another way to bring these stories to life?

A. The iPad has profoundly changed the ways people consume and experience content, and in order to tell the most compelling story possible, we felt it was important to take advantage of this exciting new medium in a way that hasn't been done before. The Human Face of Big Data iPad app is one of the most exciting and innovative ways we've used technology to tell an important story. It will feature all the stories in the book as well as interactive content that allows the reader to go deeper and learn even more about these compelling stories. Another first for us is that the book will be the first book ever to incorporate a VIEWER app that allows readers to access additional content. Certain pages in the book will be flagged for users to scan with the Aurasma app on their smartphone or tablet. Scanning the pages will bring content to life and enable readers to watch expanded videos about the stories.