An hour or so with Rick Smolan and Jennifer Erwitt’s new coffee table book, The Human Face of Big Data confirmed what I have been thinking for awhile. “Big data” can be both a blessing and a curse, but its mostly a blessing.
The 233 page book is, quite literally, a weighty contribution to our understanding of big data. Its lead author, Rick Smolan, is a veteran photographer and book producer whose credits include the A Day in the Life book series. Published by Against All Odds, the new book is available in print for $31.50 or as an iPad app for $2.99.
In his introduction to the book, contributor Dan Gardner points to Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1921 distopian novel We, where the author “imagines a future in which every building is made of glass so the authorities can see what citizens are doing at all times.” Gardner wrote that some pessimists worry that it could , but he thinks “that the pessimists are too optimistic.” Yet, in documenting the extent to which every query we make, every status update we post and even every medical procedure we endure contributes to the oceans of data accumulated about each of us, contributors to the book paint a mostly positive picture. The book is full of inspiring and lavishly illustrated stories like how police officers in New York are using modern mapping technology to plot and solve crimes or how Australia’s Marine Observing System hopes to protect species and unlock the oceans’ secrets by collecting and analyzing terabytes of data from undersea sensors.
There are other discoveries of big data — the fact that even though 95% of Seattle’s recycling was processed efficiently, “the remaining 5% went on an astounding energy-wasting journeys,” including one printer cartridge that had to travel 4,000 carbon guzzling miles to reach the proper recycling facilty.
The potential for medical breakthroughs are unending. Silicon Valley’s Proteus Digital Health, for example, makes “ingestable event markers” about the size of a grain of sand that enter to the human digestive system measure the impact of medications and send back data to smart phones outside the body.
I was at the International Conference of Data Protection and Privacy Commissioners in Uruguay this October where Microsoft general counsel Brad Smith talked about how researchers were able to determine an adverse drug interaction between a popular antidepressant and another popular drug used to reduce cholesterol levels. When people included both drugs in a Bing search, “25 percent of the time they were also looking for information about how to deal with a headache or how to address fatigue or other symptoms associated with diabetes,” he said. This discovery helped lead researches to conclude that these two drugs, when taken together, could lead to diabetes.
Google has discovered the certain search terms are good indications of flu activity and has created a flu-trends web page that uses this “big data” to predict flu outbreaks.
Google and Facebook each get two pages. Googling Google shows just how massive its data stores have become with 20 petabytes (20 million MB) of data processed daily as it’s visited daily by 50% of all Internet users. There’s even an illustration of what happens in the half second it takes between the time you enter a query and Google returns your result. Facebook, which had only 955 million active users (it now has over a billion) when this book went to bed is home to 35% of all photographs taken and while some worry that it “invades our privacy,” the book points out that Facebook employs a dozen data scientists who’s research “centers on how people communicate, why they communicate, and what drives their emotional responses to events in the world and in their own lives.”
The Human Face of Big Data is one of those books that you probably won’t read in one sitting but will want to keep around as a reminder of how our world is changing before our eyes. But if you think this five pound coffee table is big, think about its subject matter. As the book points out, — each and every day — we generate 70 times the information contained in the Library of Congress. And the rate of new information will only increase as times goes on.