Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Human Face Within Big Data

For three decades, Rick Smolan—a former Time, Life and National Geographic photographer—has taken global cultural snapshots through his Day in the Life series of coffee table books that explore a time capsule of activity involving a country, discipline, or issue.

The projects—produced by the New York-based Against All Odds Productions—which Smolan runs with wife and co-author, Jennifer Erwitt, and COO Katya Able, take around 18 months and involve upwards of 200 writers and photographers around the globe.

Their latest book, The Human Face of Big Data, out this week, takes a more encompassing approach to a topic than its predecessors. Tackling the idea of Big Data—mankind’s ability to collect, analyze, and act on an unprecedented amount of information in real time—the book uses photos, essays, and articles (including one by yours truly) to examine the phenomenon, and how individuals and companies are harnessing it for human benefit, while raising concerns about data ownership and privacy invasion.

“Having now spent a year looking closely at this emerging world of big data, I hope the book will spark a global conversation about both the tremendous potential good and the concerns we all need to have about who owns data that you and I generate,” says Smolan. "Right now it's primarily companies and governments who are thinking about the uses of Big Data. It's really important that each of us also thinks about how this is going to affect our lives."  

The project employs Big Data as a storytelling device and business platform. In the two months leading up to the book’s release, the Against All Odds team organized a three-city technology networking event and unveiled a website to gather digital behavior data from 300 000-plus anonymous volunteers. The results will be available free to researchers and academics next year. The project is self-published from sponsorship by several technology companies, primarily EMC2, along with Cisco Systems, VMWare, Tableau Software, Originate, plus FedEx. It’s the first coffee table book to use the Aurasma mobile app, which triggers related multimedia when readers hold smartphone and tablet cameras to yellow key graphics on its pages. There’s also an iPad app, with profits going to charity: water.

Hopeful But Wary
The book is a hopeful look at Big Data, highlighting its impact on agricultural efficiency, weather and earthquake prediction, fertility and genome mapping, space junk, crime solving, eradicating disease, and tracking endangered species, to name a few.

In one particularly striking example, The Artificial Retina—looking like something straight out of Star Trek—Weill Cornell Medical College’s Sheila Nirenberg used Big Data to circumvent certain types of blindness, such as that caused by damaged retinal photoreceptor cells. Her team employs high-speed, parallel processing to embed custom software into microprocessors and cameras to be built into eyeglasses. The camera images are translated into code (in the form of flashing lights) that can be transmitted by still healthy ganglion cells and understood by the brain.

But with hope comes concern. That's Smolan's take on J. Craig Venter’s Synthetic Genomics in La Jolla, Calif., which also relies on massive computer processing, to create genetic sequencing for new types of bacteria, algae, and plants to assist in industry and replace fossil fuels. “He is patenting new forms of life,” says Smolan. “While these new forms are being designed for human good, it does make you think of unintended consequences, like Frankenstein.”

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