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Earth’s Nervous System: Looking At Humanity Through Big Data

In his latest book, The Human Face of Big Data, photographer and co-author Rick Smolan looks at what vast amounts of real time data says about us, how it makes our lives better, and scarier.

• Every two days, mankind creates as much information as it did from the dawn of civilization until 2003.

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• The amount of information that an average person is exposed to in a day is the same as a person from the 15th century was exposed to in his lifetime.

• The amount of information generated during the first day of a baby’s life today is equivalent to 70 times the information contained in the Library of Congress.

And you wonder why you’re exhausted?

In The Human Face of Big Data, Rick Smolan, a former Time, Life, and National Geographic photographer famous for creating the Day in the Life book series, and author Jennifer Erwitt examine how today’s digital onslaught and emerging technologies can help us better understand and improve the human condition–ourselves, interactions with each other, and the planet.

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The 14 x 11-inch, 224-page coffee table book, arriving Dec. 4, employs a collection of images, essays, and articles (including one by yours truly) to explore innovative ways that business, science and medicine, academia, politics, law enforcement, and Hollywood are collecting and utilizing data–such as predicting crime and earthquakes, identifying counterfeit drugs, disease screening, home electricity usage, and understanding animals and nature–while raising questions about data ownership and privacy erosion. The one blissful omission: not a cat video in sight.

“This is the most challenging and satisfying project I’ve ever worked on,” says Smolan. “It’s like watching the planet develop a nervous system. The ability to collect, analyze, triangulate, and visualize vast amounts of data in real time is something the human race has never had before. This new set of tools, or Big Data, is being used to address some of the biggest challenges facing our planet. I hope the book will spark a global conversation about both the tremendous potential for good and the concerns about who owns data that you and I generate.”

Rick Smolan’s keynote speech at the Strata Conference in New York in October.

“Big Data’s” Use of Big Data

The work capitalizes on some of this technology in its narrative. It’s the first coffee table book to utilize the Aurasma mobile app–enabling readers to trigger related video and other content by training their smartphone and tablet cameras on specially marked yellow key icons on some of the pages.

An interactive iPad version of the book will be available down the road, allowing users to interact with multimedia content exemplifying how Big Data addresses some of humanity’s biggest challenges.

Those elements culminate in the Human Face of Big Data project, a series of initiatives begun earlier this fall to spark global conversations about the effect of humanity’s ability to collect and analyze enormous amounts of data in real time. It launched late September with a free mobile app that gleaned a week’s worth of information from some 300,000 participants on how they lived, viewed their lives, and interacted with others with similar digital footprints. The crowdsourced collection of anonymous data will be made available to researchers, data scientists, and educators to study as a data snapshot of a week in the life of humanity in 2012.

On Oct. 2, the project sponsored Mission Control, a simultaneous speaker event in New York, London, and Singapore where tech leaders discussed what the concept meant to them, alongside a networking forum that showcased new startups. On Nov. 17, in conjunction with TEDxYouthDay, it launched the Data Detectives website as the student component of Big Data. Through the end of the year, it will collect answers to questionnaires and real-time data interaction from students in grades 6-12. Like its adult counterpart, that anonymous information will be available for researchers next year, and get young people talking about how new technologies will impact their thinking and expression during their lives.

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An Unexpected Career

Smolan, who now lives in his native Manhattan, was working as a photographer in Australia in 1980, when he came up with the idea of a coffee table book that pooled a single day of shots of the country from leading photographers. When Smolan couldn’t find an interested publisher, he asked then-Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, with whom he’d traveled on assignment for Time, for government money. Fraser declined, and instead helped him tap corporate sponsorship. The result, A Day in the Life of Australia, was not only a bestseller in that country, but spawned the bestselling Day in the Life book series that chronicles life in other countries.

“I could barely add up expenses at the end of an assignment, so the idea of me running a company was totally bizarre,” says Smolan. “But because I was turned down by every publisher, I had to learn how to be a publisher.”

Co-author Jennifer Erwitt

In 1989, Smolan and his wife, Jennifer Erwitt–daughter of the
famed photographer Elliott Erwitt–founded Against All Odds Productions to expand their storytelling to other topics and enhance it with emerging digital technology and interactivity. In 1995, Katya Able joined as COO. The projects run about 18 months, employing a global network of some 200 researchers, photographers, writers, illustrators, and designers. Past efforts include 24 Hours in Cyberspace, The Power to Heal: Ancient Arts & Modern Medicine, Passage to Vietnam (exploring that country’s opening up in the early 1990s), and Blue Planet Run (about the global water crisis). America 24/7 broke ground by inviting the public to shoot and submit photos alongside professionals. From Alice to Ocean, chronicling Robyn Davidson’s cross-Australia trek, was the first book to be packaged with a CD-Rom and is now being made into a movie starring Mia Wasikowska (Alice in Wonderland).

“All our books have been made possible via sponsorship–no publisher in the world would spend millions of dollars to create a coffee table book. Nowadays, they don’t even want to risk the cost of printing the book,” says Smolan. “Jennifer and Katya are the database, budget, and scheduling queens. Photographers are notoriously independent and difficult to manage. They coordinate the 200+ creative individuals scattered around the globe, making sure the work of one team passes seamlessly to the next. Photographers are notoriously independent and difficult to manage. Jennifer and Katya have the rare skill of being able to herd the cats.”

A rendering of global Facebook friendships. ©Paul Butler 2012 / from The Human Face of Big Data

The Road to “Big Data”

Smolan initially got the idea for Big Data early last year from Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer. (“She was the first person to describe Big Data to me in visual terms,” he says.) But the digital universe’s rapid expansion would have rendered a single-day snapshot obsolete by the time the book came out 18 months later. So instead of that type of random sample, Smolan wanted give an overall sense of the impact it was having on the planet.

Photographer and co-author Rick Smolan

With the economy reining in publishing money, Smolan once again tapped corporate sponsors: primarily IT solutions provider EMC Corp., with supporting sponsorships from Cisco Systems, VMWare, Tableau Software, Originate, and FedEx (which is delivering 10,000 copies to world leaders and Fortune 500 CEOs) and distributed through Barnes & Noble’s Sterling Books.

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“Right now it’s primarily companies and governments who are thinking about the uses of Big Data,” says Smolan. “It’s really important that each of us also thinks about how this is going to affect our lives.”  

To illustrate, he tells the story of one of the book’s profiles, Hugo Campos, whose pacemaker wirelessly transmits heart metrics to his physician throughout the day. Campos wanted to correlate pacemaker activity with his exercise, sleep, and diet. But when he asked the device manufacturer for a copy of his medical data, the manufacturer refused, claiming he did not own the data.

Another subject, scientist Craig Venter, is patenting new forms of life. “While these new forms are being designed for human good, it does make you think of unintended consequences, like Frankenstein,” says Smolan. “There are no laws governing this. All this stuff will be set in stone soon by corporations. My worry is that by the time individuals begin thinking about it, it will be too late.”

Click on the slide show for some of the book’s examples of how Big Data is being visualized and applied.

About the author

Susan Karlin is an award-winning journalist in Los Angeles, covering the nexus of science, technology, and arts, with a fondness for sci-fi and comics. She's a regular contributor to Fast Company, NPR, and IEEE Spectrum, and has written for Newsweek, Forbes, Wired, Scientific American, Discover, NY and London Times, and BBC Radio.

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