Can Big Data Change Who You Are?

Rick Smolan: Last year at the World Economic Forum there were a number of people talking about the fact that they see big data as a new asset class.  I think Zack Bogue, who is Marissa Mayer’s husband, was telling us about this also. When we were doing research, he and Marissa were both incredibly helpful to us in kind of conceptualizing the whole project.

There’s a story in the book about a gentleman who has a pacemaker; it’s a wireless pacemaker, so throughout his day the data from his heart is transmitted to his doctor, and he actually spent time looking at his exercise, his nutrition, his alcohol consumption, and he wanted to find out whether there is some correlation between his other activities and when his pacemaker kicked in.  So he called the manufacture saying, “Could I get a copy of the last six months of my heart data?” and they said, "Sorry, sir, this is proprietary."  He said, “Wait a second. This is my heart. You have been collecting information about my heart; I want a copy of the information.”  They have refused to give it to him.  

What I love about the story is it kind of makes you think, well, wait a second, why is it that my browser history is being sold to the highest advertiser, there’s credit card companies selling the data about what I’m consuming, everybody’s trading in all the data that I’m creating, and here’s a guy who - someone is actually recording his heartbeat and when his pacemaker kicks in, and yet we don’t have access to most of this, we have no control over who’s using it.  It’s very valuable, and yet, we as the people manufacturing it don’t seem to have any say over who's using it or what they're doing with it.  And I think that’s got to change.  I think that we have to have the ability to decide what we share and what we don’t.  

I read recently that there was a credit card company that admitted that they were actually looking at people‘s Facebook profiles and that people that were listening to rap music were given a lower credit rating score because somehow, statistically, people listen to rap music were somehow a more of a credit risk.  My twelve year old listens to rap music.  The fact that there are algorithms and programs out there that are making decisions about my ability to get credit, that I have no idea on what I’m being judged by, what books I read, who I talk to, what music I’m listening to.  This is very scary stuff.  

The whole point of doing this Human Face of Big Data project, which was sponsored, by the way, by EMC, one of the largest players in the big data space, but they - I’m a journalist, so they had no right of review or censorship.  They didn’t even see this project 'til the book and the iPad app came out.  They basically gave us the ability to kind of start this global conversation. . . .

A lot of my friends in the journalism world, who are hearing about big data for the first time, have said to me, well, is this just a big promotion for big data?  Is it just, yay, big data’s going to solve all of our problems?  My response has been that every time there’s a new tool, whether it's Internet or cell phones or anything else, all these things can be used for good or evil.  Technology is neutral; it depends on how it’s used.  So I think that what I’m trying to do, what I’m hoping that the Human Face of Big Data project will do, is to get people talking and thinking about this in a way that perhaps is thought provoking and disturbing and exciting.  I mean, there’s a lot of stories in the book where you go, that’s so cool; that’s wonderful.  I love this!

A lot of people believe that the ability to measure - instead of doing a random sampling, which is what we used to do; we used to go out and ask people, twenty thousand people a question, and they would say, this is what everybody thinks.  We're able to do much more nuance now.  We're almost able to poll people all over the world at the same time. 

There’s five million people now that carry cell phones, particularly in the developing world.  So we're actually - a lot of people have been speculating that soon we may be able to actually measure the heartbeat of everybody on earth simultaneously, which is kind of a fascinating idea.  What would that mean if you could actually listen to this global heartbeat and actually sense this pattern of behavior across the planet in the course of a day?  I mean, in a way Twitter has become that.  Twitter has become sort of a new way of sort of listening in on the conversation in real time.

So, there’s a lot of questions out there.  Big data is a brand new tool; we’ve never seen anything quite like this before, and I hope people will turn the pages of the book and want to share the stories with each other.

Directed / Produced by
Jonathan Fowler & Elizabeth Rodd


We have generated a huge amount of information, which is very cheap to collect. But we are now able to see patterns and develop a new understanding of data. This gives us the potential to change our behavior.

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