Big data is “one of those phrases that everybody’s kind of bandying around,” says photographer Rick Smolan, whose company Against All Odds Productions created the coffee table book The Human Face of Big Data. But business leaders are using different definitions, he says, and people—whether they are involved in technology or not—are curious about how big data will touch their everyday lives.
Through a mix of photographs, infographics, stories, and essays, The Human Face of Big Data showcases big data’s impact: how CERN is using it to drive new scientific discoveries, how FedEx is using it to deliver new services, and how regular people around the world are turning to connected devices to monitor their health and protect their communities. “Our approach has been to try to show not just the technology, but the effect of the technology,” Smolan says.
I think big data really is going to be something we will look back on as a turning point. It really is like watching a planet develop a nervous system.
Here, he talks to Profit about the human faces that make up his book, and what he wants the book’s readers to keep thinking about.
On impact: Everybody always thinks every new thing is going to change the world, but I think big data really is going to be something we will look back on as a turning point. It really is like watching a planet develop a nervous system. Now, whether it’s our activities on the Web or our physical movements or our smartphones, it’s almost like each of us has become a nerve on the surface of a planet. And now all that data can be analyzed in real time so that we can actually see cause and effect, and get planetary feedback in a way that’s affordable.
percentage of US-born children who have an online presence by age two (Source: The Human Face of Big Data)
On control: In the book, there’s a picture of a man named Hugo Campos who has a cardiac defibrillator. Throughout the day it transmits data about his heart to the manufacturer. Hugo wants to track his diet, alcohol consumption, and exercise and correlate that against when his device kicks in to see if there’s a pattern. But the company that makes the defibrillator refuses to give him access, saying the data is proprietary. This speaks to larger concerns about who owns our data, who controls it, who profits from it.
On stories: We constructed this like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Suddenly, you step back and see the picture. FedEx has SenseAware devices that constantly announce where they are and provide other data about their status. In Africa, you can now SMS a little code on the back of a medicine bottle to see if the medicine is counterfeit. The whole book to me is like Where’s Waldo? You open any page and think, “OK, it’s a picture of someone standing in the middle of debris after a tornado destroyed her house. How does that connect to big data?” And then you read the caption and go, “Oh, my god. That’s amazing.”