What's the Big Idea?

As 80 percent of all humans own some sort of mobile phone, the amount of data we are creating is exploding. This so-called data exhaust can be just that -- exhaust and noise -- but it can also be collected and analysed, and then utilized as one of the most powerful assets in the 21st century economy. 

That's the view of tech giants such as Google, Facebook, Twitter and Amazon, and organizations such as the World Economic Forum. Big Data is becoming as powerful an asset as oil, and it will be the source of many high quality jobs in the near future. Amazon, for instance, has formed relationships with 350 universities around the world to train a workforce 190,000 people in the field of advanced Big Data analytics. 

So given the promise of Big Data, what do we all need to know about it and how will it impact our lives? How is it changing the way we see ourselves? Should we fear it or embrace it?

Embrace it. That's the view of Rick Smolan who co-authored the book The Human Face of Big Data (available for download as a tab let app here) an ambitious project that aims to capture the "men, women, and children whose lives are being transformed by this data revolution." In the slideshow below, you will get a taste of how data is being used as "the most powerful tool set the human race has ever had to address the widespread challenges facing our species and our planet," as Smolan puts it.

Photo credits


© Nigel Holmes 2012 / from The Human Face of Big Data

23 & Me 
© Douglas Kirkland 2012 / from The Human Face of Big Data
Model Released
J Edgar Hoover
©George Skadding / Time Life Pictures / Getty Images 2012 / from The Human Face of Big Data
©Christoph Morlinghaus/CASEY 2012 / from The Human Face of Big Data

Great Apes
©Dr. Tobias Deschner / Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology 2012 / from The Human Face of Big Data
Shwetak Patel
©Peter Menzel 2012 / from The Human Face of Big Data

What's the Significance?

To review, here are some of the key insights and examples of the uses of Big Data from the slideshow above:

  • Data is the New Oil: embraced as a key asset by the World Economic Forum
  • The cutting edge of Big Data looked a lot different in the 1940s, when J. Edgar Hoover amassed personal information, including over 100 million fingerprints.
  • Wikileaks has turned the table on government data. Ironically, it is much easier to steal government records today than to access J. Edgar Hoover's analog records. 
  • It is difficult for scientists to track Great Apes, so they are greatly aided by facial recognition software and data analysis. 
  • Shwetak Pantel developed an algorithm to track which home devices are the biggest energy wasters and find ways to conserve. 
  • The Octopus Elephantis Googleplexus has its tentacles in everything and forgets nothing. 
  • Personal genetics is cheaper and more accessible than ever before thanks to online sites like 23 & Me. 
  • Amazon is forecasting a data hiring boom (190,000 positions in advanced analytics) and partnering with hundreds of universities worldwide to train the new big data workforce. 

Stay tuned for more insights from Rick Smolan in his upcoming interview with Big Think. 

Follow Daniel Honan on Twitter @Daniel Honan