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October 25, 2012

Big Data, Better Tomorrow: An Interview with Rick Smolan, Part 2

All around the world, big bata is being used to solve longstanding challenges. In Canada, big data is being used to detect infections in ICU babies before its too late. By harnessing millions of heartbeat measurements from the ICU each day, infections can now be detected at least 24 hours before they become symptomatic, thus allowing doctors to get a head-start on treatment. However, medicine is just one of many fields advancing through big data. Big data has led to extraordinary discoveries in many diverse fields, including economics, science, technology, and countless others.

In the first of our two part interview series with Rick Smolan, we discussed the foundation of the Human Face of Big Data project and its incredible app. Today, we're kicking off the second part of the series with a look at major advancements made possible by analyzing big data.

When you think of challenges that were solved using big data in recent years, what major discovery immediately comes to mind?
Remember the terrible earthquake in Japan last year? We all saw images on TV and read about the devastation, it was just heartbreaking. But one of the stories that very few people in the media covered was the fact that 43 seconds before the earthquake hit, every bullet train in every factory in Japan stopped.

It turns out that Japan spent half-a-billion dollars over the last 15 years installing this early earthquake warning system. Incredibly expensive, dedicated sensors, hard-wired, and it worked!

Can you give us an example of how big data is being used to improve the everyday lives of individuals?
There's this little gadget that I wear on my wrist, called the Jawbone. This measures my sleep. It tells me how much good sleep, deep sleep, REM sleep. It shows me my pace during the day. It shows me what time of the day I'm the most active, and what time I'm not.

Three years from now, wristbands, like the Jawbone, will be doing blood oxygen and glucose levels. This might be a way to give us early health warnings. This is big data. A lot of people say, "No, it's a little device. It's a tiny metadata." But if every single human being was wearing it, it might give us this other view of our health, of our activity, of correlating food and diet, with nutrition and disease. It's fascinating.

You and your team traveled all around the world to learn stories of how big data is solving challenges in different societies. Do you have any favorite stories or discoveries?
There's so many other stories that we've uncovered. For years radar operators at airports have basically cursed about the fact that there's all this noise on their radar from birds, bees, bats, and insects. They keep trying to filter this stuff out, because they want to see where the planes are.

A group of scientists about a year ago said, "Wait, you've got 20 years of migration patterns of bats and birds and bees, and you've been throwing it out?" This stuff that was considered to be noise that radar operators are trying to get rid of, suddenly is this incredible treasure trove for scientists. We're seeing this over and over again all over the world, data that was always right there in front of us. Suddenly, we can see things that we just simply couldn't see before.

What role do you think big data will play in the world 50 years from now?
I think 50 years from now big data will be invisible like telephones are now, and really just a part of everyday life. Like all pervasive technologies, things ultimately disappear into the background, like telephones, for instance. In 50 years, that's what I think big data will be: pervasive to the point where we're not talking about it any more. It will become part of everything, woven into every aspect of how the world works.

Want to find out where you fit in to the bigger picture of big data? Download our app on Android or on iOS.
October 24, 2012

Mission Control: Recap

On October 2nd, Rick Smolan stood before a large audience in Manhattan's own Chelsea Market, and boldly stated that: "Big Data will have a bigger effect on humanity than the internet."

These were the words that kicked off Mission Control, the climactic event intended to discuss the latest advances in Big Data. Rick's words sent a wave of excitement over the venue, which was aptly decorated in neon-lights, stunning photographs, and glowing monitors that displayed mind-blowing facts about Big Data and the world as we know it.

For the next hour and a half, we witnessed presentations from an impressive lineup of tech and media figures, including: Juan Enriquez, Sheldon Gilbert, Carlos Dominguez, Esther Dyson, Aaron Koblin, Paul Sagan, Jer Thorp, and Scott Harrison.

"We can either get crushed by its weight or take this opportunity to unlock its potential," said Paul Sagan of Akamai, when referring to the power of Big Data. The crowd was then presented with a new data visualization system that shows where data is being created around the globe. This system is being used to pinpoint malicious IP addresses on digital maps, thus allowing the prevention of destructive data hacks.

Jer Thorp of the New York Times presented an extraordinary visualization of airplanes landing and taking off from airports around the world. "This is one of our most clear experiences of living in a world where we can't understand a system because it's too big," Thorp explained. He then introduced the audience to a project of his, Just Landed, which collects information about how people are traveling from their Tweets and cellphone activity. Just Landed is being used to map patterns that offer new insight on the process of human mobility.

The final presentation of the event was given by the founder of charity: water, Scott Harrison. Scott noted that every $1 invested in improved water and sanitation equates to $12 in economic returns. He posed a problem explaining that: "People don't want to give to charity because there's a black hole, so we wanted to use data to show people the impact of their money." charity: water's solution to fill this black hole was to implement GPS systems on their wells in order to allow funders to witness how wells are drilled and function over time.

Over a dozen prominent companies set up "data pods" at Mission Control to share the advancements they're making, thanks to Big Data. Weatherbug demonstrated how they are using satellites to track thunderstorms paths earlier than ever before. MLB presented its process of analyzing the performance of baseball pitchers using sensors that track pitches. Bluefin Labs demonstrated its process for measuring how influential individuals are in the social media space by compiling their conversations and analyzing their overall reach. These are just a few examples from more than a dozen companies that came out to share their Big Data stories at Mission Control.

In addition to all of the amazing presentations, the world was able to view some awesome data visualizations from the app. Some of the early data collected from the app revealed thought-provoking results. We've discovered that people who get their news from the TV are more likely to believe in an afterlife than people who get their news from computers. We also found that couples who are cohabiting are less likely to want to change anything about their partners than couples who are married.

Visit our official Facebook Page for more photos from Mission Control NYC and the app. In case you missed the live-stream, you can watch it here, and we'll be releasing individual videos of each speaker in the coming weeks.

Mission Control was only the beginning. We're collecting data from smartphone users all around the world, through November 20th. Want to help us measure our world? Download the app for Android or iOS today!

October 23, 2012

Twitter and Big Data: What's in a Tweet?

From gossip stream to on-the-ground reporting for natural disasters to marketing campaign platform, Twitter plays a major role in detailing everyday life. With 1 billion Tweets sent every 72 hours from over 140 million active users, Twitter is more than just a micro-blogging platform: it's become a source for big data on an individual, regional, national, and worldwide level.

Last Friday, we were very excited to hold a live Q&A on Twitter with Twitter's very own Isaac Hepworth (@IsaacH). Isaac has an engineering background and works for the Media team at Twitter. In his spare time, he looks at "what Twitter data can tell us about how feedback loops drive behavior", among other adventures:

Isaac spent an hour with us sharing fascinating insights about Twitter and big data and how Twitter data has changed how we see, experience, and change the world around us. We started with a couple of fun icebreaker questions directly from our app and found out which country Isaac wants to visit not just once, but twice in his lifetime:

Politics has been a hot topic this season with an election between President Barack Obama and Republican candidate Mitt Romney just around the corner. From the "binders full of women" viral meme and Trending Topic to assessing changes in political sentiment in real-time with Twindex, Twitter has been prominently used in several different political events. Isaac's recent favorite?

Twitter's impact on health, another hot topic, saw some recent media exposure this past year when researchers found they could predict illnesses based on Twitter data:

We also loved hearing Isaac's insights into how Twitter has changed the face of television, marketing, and advertising, moving it away from a soapbox and more towards a conversation:

You can check out the full Twitter Q&A stream on #BigDataChat. Learn more about Twitter and big data on the Twitter blog and check out a great infographic about Twitter designed by Nigel Holmes (@nigelholmes) for The Human Face of Big Data book, available December 4, 2012. Be sure to download the Human Face of Big Data app on Android or iOS before November 20 to participate in our globally crowdsourced project and help measure our world.

October 22, 2012

Measuring Our World: An Interview with Rick Smolan, Part 1

Photo Credit: Renowned photographer and journalist, Rick Smolan, is a man on a mission. Rick's latest project, the Human Face of Big Data, is a global attempt to measure our world by collecting and visualizing massive amounts of data in real time. The results will be groundbreaking, as staggering correlations will be made between human activity and the world, as we know it.

We caught up with Rick to chat about this unprecedented project. The conversation has been divided into a two part series.

How did you first discover big data? What is it?
Ihave a lot of friends in the technology world and this word, "Big Data," started popping up a year ago and I kept saying, "What is Big Data?" Everybody described it differently! One person would say to me, "Big Data is so much data, it can't fit on a personal computer." Then the next person would say, "No, no. Big Data is when you take data collected for different reasons by different organizations and overlap them and suddenly see these patterns that you could have never seen otherwise."

What kind of impact do you believe big data will have on the world?
The more that I've learned about big data, the more I think that this is going to have a bigger effect on the human species and on our planet than the Internet. If you'd asked somebody 15 or 20 years ago when the Internet first entered people's lives, was it really going to be transformative? I don't think anyone would have ever realized in less than 20 years that the Internet would become so inextricably woven into the fabric of life.

Can you tell us more about how the Human Face of Big Data smartphone app will work?
Yes, so it has three parts. It asks "Would you allow us to download the passive data that your phone collects about you?" And there are a lot of things your phone knows about you. It knows your radius of travel. It knows how many people you pass in the course of a day, because of Bluetooth handshakes. You get to see this view of your life in a way that you might not normally.

The second part is a series of very thought-provoking questions. We're asking you all these questions that appear to be sort of random, about politics and sex and sleep and relationships. But by triangulating all those, you suddenly see these patterns emerging.

What kind of activities make up the third part of the app?
One is going to help you find your data doppelganger. Somebody just like you on the other side of the world that answers the questions and has a data pattern just like you. Second activity is called, "Before I Die," which sounds creepy, but it isn't. It asks, "What's the one thing in your life, no matter what age you are, that you'd love to have said that you did?"

What do you hope to accomplish in your lifetime before you die?
View earth from outer space.

Want to find out where you fit in to the bigger picture of big data? Download our app on Android or on iOS.

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Big Data ends where it begins — with people — when those numbers, generated by all of us, improve all our lives. The Human Face of Big Data tells the story of that circle, and your role in it. Big data is detecting earthquakes in tsunami-prone Japan, keeping traffic flowing on America's highways, foiling counterfeit pharmaceuticals, battling mosquitoes from outer space, and providing citizens in the developing world with much-needed identity documents. Explore examples and uncover all the ways Big Data is impacting our world.

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