clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Can You Put a Face to Big Data?

Read the blurbs! Page through the coffee-table book! Watch the documentary!

A version of this essay was originally published at Tech.pinions, a website dedicated to informed opinions, insight and perspective on the tech industry.

One of the most popular buzzwords in tech is something called Big Data. However, trying to get a straight answer as to what Big Data is can be difficult. In fact, as I looked into this more deeply, I found at least 20 different definitions of what people believe Big Data means.

The fundamental concept of Big Data is that all types of computing devices — computers, smartphones, cars, fitness trackers, bar-code scanners and even your TV and other IoT devices — are creating data and, in most cases, sending that data to the cloud.

Once it is in the cloud, data is stored and collated. Using various analytical tools, companies or individuals can mine that data to get answers to all types of questions, or learn important things through statistical analysis. Using Big Data, one could study people’s habits and look at global health information in search of patterns that could help create new drugs or treatments in the medical world. It can be used to find the latest fields for drilling oil and, in one example that affects all of us, it gives advertisers a glimpse into what people are thinking and what they want, in order to create better targeted ads for their clients or customers.

However, on the surface, Big Data is all about numbers and number crunching. If looked at in these terms, Big Data seems cold, calculating and highly impersonal. A friend of mine, Rick Smolan, who is considered one of the great photographers of our time, looked at this idea of Big Data about five years ago, and wondered not only what it means, but how it looked in terms of people creating and using it in real life.

 Photographer Rick Smolan
Photographer Rick Smolan
Phoebe Smolan

The result of this quest was a coffee-table book entitled “The Human Face of Big Data.” Rick and a team of photographers, researchers and bloggers went around the world to photograph people using technology, and to put a face to this idea of Big Data.

Ted Anthony of the Associated Press defined what this book is about:

“ … an enormous volume … that chronicles, through a splash of photos and eye-opening essays and graphics, the rise of the information society. … a curious, wonderful beast — a solid slab that captures a virtual universe. … This is one of those rare animals that captures its era in the most distinct of ways. It’s the kind of thing you’d put in a time capsule for your children today to show them, long after you’re gone, what the world was like at the beginning of their lives.”

When Rick sent me a copy of the book three years ago, it was a real eye-opener for me, and I suspect for anyone who reads it since it demystified the idea of Big Data.

I recently found out that Rick and his team were not content with covering this topic in book form alone. Last week, I was invited to the West Coast premiere of a new movie on this topic, executive-produced by Rick and directed by his brother, Sandy Smolan.

The movie is called “The Human Face of Big Data: The Promise and Perils of Growing a Planetary Nervous System.” The hour-long documentary premieres nationally on PBS Wednesday, Feb. 24, at 10 pm ET (check local listings).

Narrated by actor Joel McHale, the award-winning film features compelling human stories, captivating visuals and in-depth interviews with dozens of pioneering scientists, entrepreneurs, futurists and experts to illustrate powerful new data-driven tools, which have the potential to address some of humanity’s biggest challenges, including health, hunger, pollution, security and disaster response.

Some interesting tidbits from the pre-movie briefing I had, and from the movie itself:

  • “The average person today processes more data in a single day than a person in the 1500s did in an entire lifetime” — Mick Greenwood
  • “Big Data is truly revolutionary because it fundamentally changes mankind’s relationship with information.” — Michael S. Malone
  • “We’ve reached a tipping point in history: Today more data is being manufactured by machines — servers, cellphones, GPS-enabled cars — than by people.” — Esther Dyson
  • “From the dawn of civilization until 2003, humankind generated five exabytes of data. Now we produce five exabytes every two days. And the pace is accelerating.” — Eric Schmidt
  • “As we begin to distribute trillions of connected sensors around the planet, virtually every animate and inanimate object on earth will be generating and transmitting data, including our homes, cars, our natural and made environment and, yes, even our bodies.” — Anthony D. Williams

This documentary looks at how people all over the world are using technology and, in turn, creating, collecting and communicating data that, in most cases, goes to the cloud and can be used for all types of purposes. The movie itself is very positive about the potential impact of Big Data on us, but it is also very realistic and shows the dark side, too, since it can be used by hackers and criminals against people and mankind.

I see this documentary enlightening anyone who watches it, since it succeeds well in defining Big Data — what it is and, more importantly, how it can and will impact mankind in the future. It also makes the concept of Big Data more personal and makes us realize that, while data itself in computing code is just numbers, it is people who create that data and are really at the heart of it.

Tim Bajarin is the president of Creative Strategies Inc. He is recognized as one of the leading industry consultants, analysts and futurists covering the field of personal computers and consumer technology. Bajarin has been with Creative Strategies since 1981, and has served as a consultant to most of the leading hardware and software vendors in the industry, including IBM, Apple, Xerox, Compaq, Dell, AT&T, Microsoft, Polaroid, Lotus, Epson, Toshiba and numerous others. Reach him @Bajarin.

This article originally appeared on

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.