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Rick Smolan Puts Human Face On Big Data

Photographer best known for his "Day in the Life" coffee table books says data -- and what we do with it -- will have a profound impact on the global community.

Just how big is big data? Big enough to change humanity in ways we're only beginning to understand, says Rick Smolan, a renowned photographer best known for his "Day in the Life" coffee table books, which visually capture different aspects of the human experience.

"A lot of people -- and I'm one of them -- believe that big data is going to have a much bigger impact on civilization than even the Internet," Smolan told InformationWeek in a phone interview.

Smolan has just completed his latest project, "The Human Face of Big Data," an epic production that explores the global phenomenon of digital information. Like Smolan's previous high-profile efforts, including his book "One Digital Day: How the Microchip is Changing Our World," which featured more than 200 tech-themed photographs taken on a single day in June 1998, "The Human Face of Big Data" is first and foremost a print-oriented project. List-priced at $50 (although Amazon and Barnes & Noble each sell it for less than $32), the 224-page book features essays and stunning photographs that show the global impact of the big data revolution.

[ For more on Rick Smolan's big data project, see Invitation: Join 'Human Face Of Big Data' Project. ]

"The book was a hundred journalists from around the world looking for stories about how big data is changing our planet," said Smolan. "It's full of stories where you go, 'Wow, I never thought that was what big data is about.'"

One story, for instance, is about the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation using satellite data to combat polio in Nigeria. Satellite images are used to locate villages that the Nigerian government didn't even know existed; they help Gates Foundation workers on the ground find these previously hidden villages and hand out polio inoculations.

The project has two other components as well: an iPad ebook version, which debuted in the Apple App Store last week; and a mobile app for iOS and Android devices that itself is a big data project. Between September and November of this year, the app collected personal information from project participants around the world. "The questions were designed to be thought-provoking, but the point of them wasn't the question," said Smolan. "The point of it was the filters."

For instance, one of the survey questions asks if it's OK to have an affair if you're married. "Again, the point of it wasn't the question. It was the filter. So no big surprise: more men said 'yes' than women -- you don't need a survey to figure that one out," Smolan joked. "Then one of the women in our office said, 'Let's just add some random filters.'"

Doing so uncovered some fascinating details -- although it's unclear whether the findings carry any weighty social relevance. "It turns out that if you grew up with a pet, you were much more willing to think that having an affair while married was acceptable than if you didn't have a pet," said Smolan. "I have no idea why. I'm not even claiming it's scientific," he added. "But you can add different filters and drive through the data and see patterns in there that you normally couldn't see -- which is sort of the point of this whole project."

The iPad ebook has roughly 40% of the stories in the printed version, as well as some interactive features. For instance, one story is about counterfeit drugs in Africa, and how pills sold in shrink-wrapped bottles may appear real but are often fake. A nonprofit organization called mPedigree teamed up with Hewlett-Packard to devise a cloud-computing drug verification system. At the pharmacy, a customer can type a 12-digit scratch-off code into a text message, which is sent to an HP database. A message instantly appears on the customer's phone, reporting whether the drugs are real or fake. "You get to try that on the iPad app," said Smolan. "You get to type in a little code that you would normally scratch off the back of a bottle, and SMS it."

All proceeds from The Human Face of Big Data project are being donated to Charity: Water, a nonprofit that digs wells in Africa to provide fresh water to people in the developing world, Smolan said.

Emerging database technology promises to automate more analysis. Here's where it could replace relational systems. Also in the new, all-digital The Rise Of Semantic Databases special issue of InformationWeek: There's a big demand for big data and analytics experts. (Free registration required.)

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