If one were to take a photo of big data, what would it look like?
Photographer Rick Smolan, who has worked for National Geographic and Time magazine, and his team of data scientists are tackling this question via his The Human Face of Big Data project.
Smolan’s project will use professional photographers, voluntary participants and data scientists to document “humanity’s new ability to collect, analyze, triangulate and visualize vast amounts of data in real time.”
The project allows people to download an app to their smartphones to stream data – like the number of emails sent, location data and “answers about yourself, your family, trust, sleep, sex, dating, and dreams” – to Smolan from September 25-October 2. Smolan and his team of data scientists will interpret and analyze the data and report the results from the experiment during an October 2 media event.
In another part of the project, Smolan dispatches more than 100 photographers around the world to find and capture images that illustrate the human face of big data. These photos will be included in a new book to be published on November 20.
One photo in the project depicts two scientists standing among reams and reams of paper produced by heart monitoring machines. The pair have developed software that analyzes this discarded data to predict which patients are at high risk for a second heart attack. Another photo features a professor who has developed technology to measure energy and water use in homes.
“Imagine that the whole human race has been looking through one eye until 18 months ago, and now we’ve opened the other eye,” Smolan says. “As we’re drowning in this sea of information, the ability to collect the information is getting cheaper. This data was always there, but we’re able to now have an understanding of what it means. The way the media has been telling the story is big data is ‘Big Brother,’ [and it’s] really scary. The story is a lot more interesting, a lot more profound.”
For example, he highlights a big data application in Japan that allows citizens to get an early warning of an earthquake. Smolan points to another project in New York City where analyzing big data has provided information about a one-block radius where the city spent more than $1 million per year to put people in jail. Smolan hypothesizes that perhaps early childhood intervention or career counseling programs could help tackle these issues in this geographic area.
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