Liz Gannes

Recent Posts by Liz Gannes

Rick Smolan’s Newest Project Will Try to Breathe Life Into Big Data

Rick Smolan, creator of the epic “Day in the Life” photography books, is taking on a new challenge: Big data.

“Big data” has become a buzzphrase many people like to hate for its vagueness, but Smolan’s book format brings out all sorts of specificity and examples.

© Joe McNally 2012 / from The Human Face of Big Data

His new 7.5-pound book, “The Human Face of Big Data,” includes vignettes about wirelessly sensing disproportionate electricity and water consumption by individual home appliances, restoring human sight with a pair of computer eyeglasses that analyze light and other input in real-time, predicting repeat heart attacks by screening large samples of patients’ EKG data, and taking personal health tracking to the extreme. It will be released Nov. 20.

Smolan has been creating these massive photography projects for the last 30 years, but they’re usually about more naturally visual subjects, most recently President Obama and global water problems.

“This is the most difficult set of assignments I’ve ever worked on,” he told me. “How do you photograph data?”

Smolan also said he is well aware that the next step beyond “big data” is often thought to be “big brother.” He said the aim of the project is to get people to talk about the potential for big data, without ignoring the privacy implications.

While the book may be a static piece of work, Smolan is also trying to create a participatory experience that generates its own data, hopefully a big amount of it. Before the book comes out, he is releasing a Human Face of Big Data app for iOS and Android that asks people to measure themselves from Sept. 25 to Oct. 2.

The app will collect data about each user implicitly from smartphone sensors as well explicitly through quizzes, with everything promised to be anonymized (though I’m not clear on how exactly that will happen, given the depth of access a smartphone has to its owner’s activities).

For example, the app might count the number of contacts in people’s phone address books or track how far they travel in a single day. Then it will inform users about their “data doppelgangers” with similar attributes somewhere else in the world.

At the end of the week, all the data will be made available to scientists at Webcast “Big Data Lab” events in New York City, London and Singapore. And there’s a whole bunch of more ambitious (dare I say big) ideas beyond that, including a kids’ education day and a documentary film.


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Just as the atom bomb was the weapon that was supposed to render war obsolete, the Internet seems like capitalism’s ultimate feat of self-destructive genius, an economic doomsday device rendering it impossible for anyone to ever make a profit off anything again. It’s especially hopeless for those whose work is easily digitized and accessed free of charge.

— Author Tim Kreider on not getting paid for one’s work