Why we’re all big data now

Distilling the idea of big data into image form isn’t always easy — large data files and lines of MapReduce code aren’t exactly visually compelling subjects. Photojournalist Rick Smolan has taken a different tact, however, by focusing not on what big data is, but on who big data is. His new book, The Human Face of Big Data, comes out in November, although it’s so much more than just some printed pages.

Smolan, whose previous forays into the tech world include the books 24 Hours in Cyberspace: Painting on the Walls of the Digital Cave and One Digital Day: How the Microchip is Changing Our World, is bringing his crowdsourced photography method to big data as part of a full-on global experiment. Before the book (which features photographs from a collection of photographers around the world) is released on Nov. 20 — in a mass delivery to 10,000 of the world’s most-influential people, ranging from President Barack Obama to Jeff Bezos to Bono — Smolan hopes to give you and I a firsthand lesson in how much data is out there and what’s possible because of it.

The project

Step 1 in the project begins on Sept. 25, when citizens around the world can download a smartphone app that’s all about data collection. It gathers the passive data that phones generate (e.g., number of emails sent, location data, number of steps, noise levels, etc.) and also asks users specific questions about themselves and their lifestyles. The data is all anonymized, aggregated and easily sortable, and Smolan says the hope is that users will play around with it to learn about the people around them. Maybe, for example, they’ll see that 35-year-olds who are middle children and live in urban areas are more likely to be vegetarian.

Catherine Balet “Strangers in the light” (Steidl) 2012 / The
Human Face of Big Data

On Oct. 2, Smolan presents the data to the world in massive journalist gatherings in London, Singapore and New York. In basketball court-sized “media mission control” rooms, reporters will hear talks from leading big data figures, see screens featuring photos from the book and real-time data from the project, and generally get an introduction to all things big data. They all report on what they see, and the ideas behind big data spread even further than they already have.

What are those ideas? Smolan likes to summarize them in the explanation he gave his son when he asked Smolan what big data is: “Just imagine if your whole life you’ve been looking though one eye, and all of a sudden a scientist created a way for you to look out of both eyes,” Smolan said. You not only see more, but your whole perspective changes. “What if you could open a third eye … or thousands of eyes?”

The book

Oh, yes, there’s also the book. Its images range from a time-lapsed shot of Times Square to individuals into things like quantified self and gene sequencing, from Gordon Bell to babies (did you know the number of photos and videos taken during a baby’s first day of life in 2012 represents more data than all the snapshots taken in 1901?), from the guys behind Next Big Sound to elephant seals. There’s a clever infographic on Google comparing it to an elephant-octopus hybrid because it’s pulling data from everywhere and never forgets.

Wikileaks’ data center (in 2010) in Stockholm, Sweden.

Although one of my favorites is a comparison of an FBI file room in 1943 with the James Bond-esque data center for storing Wikileaks data. Smolan is generally painting an optimistic picture of big data and what it enables, but he’s not unaware of the deeper questions it poses. “I think all these things overlap,” he told me when I asked about some of the legal issues The Human Face of Big Data touches upon. “You can’t talk about big data without talking about things like privacy and ownership.”

Maybe in 30 years, Smolan added, we’ll rethink Julian Assange like we rethought J. Edgar Hoover.

Here’s video of Smolan giving an informal presentation on the book and associated project during its planning stages in February 2012:

Rick Smolan – The Human Face of Big Data from Steven Dean on Vimeo.