Meet the faces of big data with interactive iPad app

The ones and zeroes comprising big data might not be much to look at, but the people behind big data and the ways they’re using it to improve our world provide rich fodder for photography – in the right hands.

In his latest book, former National Geographic and Time photojournalist Rick Smolan, who is best known for The Day in the Life series, features more than one hundred powerful stories from around the world about scientists, innovators and others using big data to improve medicine, conserve energy, track the weather and more.

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MacArthur Fellow Shwetak Patel developed a sensor that can help homeowners determine which appliances are the biggest energy hogs.

The book, titled The Human Face of Big Data, hit shelves last month but on Tuesday Smolan and his partner Jennifer Erwitt released an iPad app that puts an interactive twist on about half of the book’s stories, with extra videos, charts and graphics. For example, in a story about how MacArthur Fellow and University of Washington computer science professor Shwetak Patel developed a sensor that can help homeowners determine which appliances are the biggest energy hogs, the app lets users tap on images of different appliances to see their energy load. Or in a piece about the global online collective art project The Johnny Cash Project, which combined fans’ illustrations of Cash into one video, iPad users can click on the individual pictures to see video of them being drawn. (You can see five of the stories from the book here, as well as a description of the project from my colleague Derrick Harris here.) All earnings from the app, which costs $2.99, will be donated to the nonprofit Charity: Water.

In addition to launching the iPad app on Tuesday, Smolan and his team sent copies of the book to 10,000 of the world’s most influential people, from President Barack Obama and United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon to Oprah Winfrey and Actor Robin Williams to Facebook (s FB) COO Sheryl Sandberg.

In October, the project hosted global events to bring journalists and big data innovators together. It also released Android and iOS apps that ask people around the world a set of questions about their beliefs, aspirations and lifestyles and then let them compare responses.

Earlier this fall, Smolan told me he believes big data is currently where the Internet was in 1993 but could change society in even bigger ways. While the government and corporations are considering its impact, he said he worries that ordinary people aren’t pondering about how big data could affect their lives.

“One of the goals  [of the project] was to get people thinking and talking about this world of big data while it’s still in its early formation stages,” he said.