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.

An organism found in dirt may lead to an anxiety vaccine, say scientists

Can dirt help us fight off stress? Groundbreaking new research shows how.

University of Colorado Boulder
Surprising Science
  • New research identifies a bacterium that helps block anxiety.
  • Scientists say this can lead to drugs for first responders and soldiers, preventing PTSD and other mental issues.
  • The finding builds on the hygiene hypothesis, first proposed in 1989.

Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.

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