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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.


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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