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Behind the Bytes: Rick Smolan’s Buzzworthy Book Breathes Life Into Big Data

By:  Jay Moye Apr 23, 2013

Over the last several months, the world’s technology intelligentsia and number-crunchers have been abuzz about Big Data. Now, Rick Smolan thinks it’s time for the rest of the world to join the conversation about what he says will have a far more profound impact on our lives than the Internet did 20 years ago.

The Time, Life and National Geographic photographer turned trans-media storyteller and documentarian is best known as the creator of the Day in the Life book series. For his latest project, he set out to demystify the often-misunderstood, tough-to-explain buzzword of Big Data by crowdsourcing people-driven stories and images that illustrate some of the ways our digital exhaust – as he calls the infinite stream of smartphone records, texts, browser histories, GPS data and other information we collectively emanate – is affecting our ability to get things done, earn a living, fall in love, solve problems, conserve resources and ultimately lead healthier, happier and safer lives.

Smolan compares Big Data to opening up a second eye for the first time. “You’re not just getting more data,” he explains. “You’re getting more vision… and a new dimension of understanding.”

The Human Face of Big Data, released in December, brings a seemingly black-and-white topic to life in full color through photos, essays and infographics. What readers won’t see in the coffee table-style book are pictures of data servers or IT guys staring at computer monitors. Instead, they’ll find striking snapshots and thought-provoking points of view that illustrate, for example, how SMS technology is preventing the sale of counterfeit medicines in Ghana and how a smartphone app can alert diabetics two days before they become depressed.

We spoke to Smolan about what he calls the most challenging undertaking of his career. Take a look:

You’ve never shied away from massive, emerging topics. Your previous projects have explored the global water crisis and the impact of the Internet. How and why did you land on Big Data?

The greatest thing about being a journalist is that you get to be curious about something you know nothing about and spend time with the experts to get educated. In 2011, I ran into Marissa Mayer (president and CEO of Yahoo! and formerly of Google) at a TED conference in Long Beach. She’s an old friend and respected advisor. Knowing I was looking for a topic for my next project, she suggested I consider Big Data. “What’s that?” I asked.


She replied, “Some people say it’s so much data that doesn't fit on your computer, and others say Big Data is two or more sets of data collected by different organizations, which you overlap to identify patterns.”

Neither of those sounded very interesting to me, but then she shared a metaphor that clicked. “Some people believe the planet is developing a nervous system, and we’re all helping that happen,” she said. We’re becoming human sensors on this emerging network. Our smartphones, Google searches and credit card transactions are like nerves developing in an organism, and we now have the ability to collect data, process it, visualize it and change our behavior in real time.


I thought, okay, now that’s interesting.

Marissa also pointed me to a wonderful quote by Eric Schmidt at Google, who said, "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."

Even if you don’t know what an exabyte is, you get the enormity. The sea change is gobsmacking, as they say in Australia. There is now this stream of data trailing behind all of us. If I wanted to learn about my grandfather’s life, I’d have his school and military records and maybe a few of his financial transactions. Everything would fit into a small filing cabinet. Now, in the first day of a baby’s life, the human race generates 70 times the information contained in the Library of Congress.

Big Data seems like prime fodder for a white paper or a business school case study, not necessarily a coffee table book. Why is photojournalism an effective lens through which to tell this story?

“Human face” and “Big Data” didn’t seem like two terms you’d see together in the same sentence. We sent almost 200 writers, designers and photojournalists to 30 countries to explore why we should care about this seemingly abstract and esoteric topic. Big Data is a tech-y term most people tune out because they think it doesn’t apply to them… they think it’s for the geeks. When you talk to scientists about Big Data, they go off to La La Land. But people want to know how Big Data will affect their day-to-day lives. That’s what we tried to do with the book – to bring to life a series of very human stories in a visually compelling way.

We had complete editorial independence over the project, but this type of work is incredibly expensive and, therefore, can only made possible through sponsorships. EMC sponsored The Human Face of Big Data, and FedEx delivered 10,000 copies of the book to leaders and influencers in 41 countries on the same day to spark a global conversation about this incredibly important topic. Additionally, CISCO and SAP are sponsoring a one-hour Human Face of Big Data TV special for broadcast this fall.

Is there a sinister connotation to the term Big Data?

Until a few months ago, when you heard about Big Data, the term “Big Brother” usually followed in the next sentence. It was all about the creepiness of being monitored, tracked and targeted. And that’s definitely something we should be talking about. One of the goals we had with The Human Face of Big Data was to highlight the fact that large companies and governments – not the average person – are spending a lot of time and money thinking about Big Data. 

If the government asked you if they could plant a tracking device that would let them know who you’re talking to, what you’re buying and where you’re going, you’d say "no way." Yet we line up at the Apple Store to pay $800 for the privilege of installing these devices on ourselves. A lot of us are not aware how much information these devices are collecting. We’re willing to trade in our data for convenience. But we should have the right to say whether or not we want to share this or that, or “I want a piece of the action if someone is profiting from my data.” There is currently no money behind that thought, but there’s a lot of money and momentum behind figuring out you may want to take a trip to the Caribbean or buy a sweater at your neighborhood retailer.

There’s a story in the book about a guy who has a wireless pacemaker, which transmits data from his heart to his doctors throughout the day. He spends time measuring his diet, sleep, exercise and alcohol consumption, and he wanted to map the results against when his pacemaker kicked in. So he called the pacemaker company and asked for the last six months of his data. After a long pause on the phone, he was told, “Sorry sir, but that’s our proprietary data.” And he said, “What do you mean? This is my heart generating data, and I want it.” They refused to give it to him, so he’s suing. That story speaks to the larger question of why is it that everyone is profiting from our data – selling it and triangulating it – yet we have very little say over who gets it and what they do with it? I think we need to have this conversation now while have some ability to affect laws and regulations, because it’s a bit like the Wild West out there right now.

Was there a specific moment where you realized the impact Big Data is having on your life?

My dad died in 2007, and my mom – who’s 90 – started falling about three years ago. After her third fall, no one found her for five hours. My brother and sister and I said, “Mom, you’ve got to move in with us. You can’t live by yourself anymore.” She refused, so we hired women to work in shifts, living on her couch… which she hated. Around that time, I met a gentleman from Intel who’s working on a series of projects with GE on “aging in place.” They’re developing something called the Magic Carpet, which they install in the home of your loved one to basically look at patterns of behavior throughout the day. For example, if her balance is off, her gait is off, or it’s 11 a.m. and she hasn’t touched the carpet yet, they notify me with a text or a tweet. There are no cameras, just sensors.

I’ll give another example. About two months ago, I was in L.A. heading to the airport around 5 p.m. on a Friday, trying to catch a 6:30 p.m. flight. The highway and main roads were jammed, so I knew there was no way I'd make it. I fired up a smartphone app called Waze. When you use it, you become a node on the network. So if an accident happens a few miles ahead of you, Waze redraws the map in real time and re-routes you. It took me through all back streets and got me to the airport in 23 minutes. People always think, “I’m donating my data, what am I getting in return?” With Waze, you contribute your data while benefiting from turn-by-turn driving directions.

What themes began to emerge as photos and content streamed in?

The idea of crowdsourcing – seeing people working together, whether they know it or now – is really interesting. Also, the concept of self-monitoring and the “Quantified Self” movement. One of my friends is a guy named Dr. Dean Ornish. He was telling me that 18 percent our GDP is now being spent on health care, much of it in the last six months of our lives. He said self-monitoring devices like Jawbone's Up band – which I’m wearing right now – and the Nike FuelBand are giving off all sorts of signals and creating baselines to enable us to address problems early on.

Another bucket is Dark Data, which fascinates people. We dedicated a chapter to military uses, espionage and drones, including a look at how surveillance systems in London inspired Jonathan Nolan's development of the Person of Interest TV series. Finally, the “demographic of one” concept, which entails using large amounts of data to personalize medical treatment, is pretty extraordinary.

Dr. Francis Collins, head of the National Institutes of Health, said that when Steve Jobs became ill four or five years ago, it cost about $100,000 to sequence his DNA to try and understand his disease and what could be done about it. Today the process is down to $3,000, and within 10 years it’ll be around $40. Before your doctor will be allowed to prescribe any drug, even aspirin, they’ll take a look at your DNA to see if it will actually help you or not. Collins says we’re getting to the point in an era of personalized medicine where, by having your DNA sequenced, your doctor can tell you which drugs will help you. Or if you get cancer, instead of going through chemotherapy, they’ll be able to tell you which treatments your body will respond to.

Any favorite stories from the book?

Schwetak Patel is 29 years old and just started his third company. He’s a MacArthur fellow living in Portland. He invented a chip capable of recognizing the digital signature of every appliance in your house. It provides a readout of how much electricity your toaster, dishwaster and more generate.

The Gates Foundation and ESRI are using satellite imagery to help eradicate polio by spotting villages in Nigeria we didn’t know existed because they can’t be found on a map. Now these organizations are getting 10,000 GPS-enabled cell phones to inoculation workers. It’s an odd but very inspiring combination.

Few people know that 43 seconds before the earthquake hit Japan two years ago, every bullet train and every factory across the country pulled to a halt. The country has spent more than half a billion dollars over the last 15 years installing an early earthquake warning system, which worked very effectively. A group of programmers in Palo Alto created something called Quake Catcher about a year ago. They realized the accelerometers built into our laptops – which are designed to save data from the hard drive if you trip on the cord and send the computer to the ground – can be used to detect earthquakes. They wrote a free, crowdsourced, early earthquake warning program using technology that’s already installed on our computers. They’re doing it simply to help people around the world, which to me is delightful.

You’ve also created smartphone and iPad apps to enhance the content of the book. Tell us about those.

We thought it would be interesting to incorporate a way for readers to learn more about a specific story by holding up their phone to the page to access video and additional online content. And that’s exactly what our free smartphone app does. Additionally, our iPad app, which features about 60 percent of the content in the book, can be purchased for $2.99. All proceeds go to charity: water, a terrific nonprofit that brings clean, safe drinking water to people in the developing world. The iPad app was just selected as one of five finalists for this year’s Webby Awards in the education category. Learn more about the iPad app.

Big Data is still very much a buzzword. How do you see the conversation evolving over the next few years?

I suspect the term “Big Data” will eventually fade away. After all, nobody calls the Internet the World Wide Web or cyberspace any more. I think it will segment down; there will be other ways of describing Big Data just as we now talk about mobile and social media. I think that in 2013 we’re exactly where we were with the Internet in 1993, when people were struggling to find out what it was. We’re just now starting to hear about Big Data and how it’s affecting our lives. Paul Saffo from Stanford’s School of Engineering says the value of the future will like not in the data itself, but in data refinery – extracting meaning and value from data.