Arik Hesseldahl

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Eight Questions for Rick Smolan About the Human Face of Big Data

If you work anywhere near anything that might be described as “big data” and have ever had trouble explaining to someone you care about why what you do matters, the obvious gift to give this holiday season is “The Human Face of Big Data.”

Weighing in at 7.5 pounds, it is an ambitious, jaw-dropping effort helmed by former Time, Life and National Geographic photographer Rick Smolan — he of the “Day in the Life” series of photography books, as well as “America at Home,” “America 24/7” and “24 Hours in Cyberspace.” Smolan’s new book attempts to demystify — largely successfully — the nebulous concept: What is big data?

It was exactly the question that Smolan was asking when he first hit upon the idea for the book while attending the D9 conference in 2011. Hearing the phrase “big data” uttered in so many conversations, he had no idea what it meant. Asking at first yielded unclear answers, yet he persisted, eventually landing on the idea.

Today, the book is landing on the desks of world leaders, dignitaries and other notable people around the world: Among those on the list: President Obama, the Dalai Lama, Pope Benedict XVI and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, and also Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey; Daniel Tunkelang, chief data scientist at LinkedIn; and actor Robin Williams. Among the images they’ll see upon opening it is the blended image of 1,400 different shots of New York’s Times Square taken across 15 hours. Big data is about people: What they do, where they go, who they know and so on. The stories about how data, once harnessed, solves problems and in some ways creates new ones, is its overarching theme.

There’s also a smartphone app for iPhone and Android that is launching today. It’s an interactive viewer app from Aurasma that aims to bring the book’s content to life, accessing videos and animations by pointing the camera at images on certain pages flagged within the book. On top of that, there’s a $2.99 iPad app that enables readers to take a deeper dive with some of the stories, using videos, charts and animated infographics.

I talked with Smolan about the book yesterday by phone, after spending more than a few hours perusing an advance copy over the weekend. Here’s a little of what we talked about:

AllThingsD: So where did you get the idea for a book on big data? It’s a phrase that doesn’t necessarily jump out at me as part of the title of a bestseller.

Smolan: I was at D: All Things Digital in 2011, and I kept hearing the phrase big data, and I kept asking people what it meant, because I felt stupid and because it sounded like one of those marketing phrases. The first person I talked to said, “It’s so much information it won’t sit on your personal computer.” Well, that wasn’t very interesting. The next one said, “It’s taking information from one place and overlapping it with information from another, and finding these patterns.” And that wasn’t interesting, either. The third person said, “It’s like watching the planet grow a nervous system.” And that sounded interesting. Basically, we’re seeding the world with low-cost sensors, and we’ve all become sensors with our cellphones. And instead of doing random samplings, we can almost survey every single person on the planet in real time — where they are, what they’re doing, how fast they’re going, what they’re spending money on. The ability to gather that information, process it, visualize it and then respond to it while it’s still happening is something we’ve never had the ability to do before.

Some of the material in the book I’m familiar with. The first image I saw when I opened it was one I recognized from MIT’s Sensable City Lab, and I also recognize big data anecdotes from IBM, like the one where they harnessed medical data to detect infections in premature infants. In this way, it seems it’s a little different from your previous books.

It’s sort of a combination of original photography and curation. I think that putting all the information in one place and weaving it together, with these wonderful essays that I think are just as strong as the pictures. I’ve been getting notes from people like Marissa Mayer and Jack Dorsey saying that this is the first time they’ve had something that helps them explain how important this is. Amazon called last week to say they sold out of copies of the book on the first day and people were ordering 50 or 60 copies at a time, which has never happened ever to any book I’ve done in 25 years. They were dumbfounded. The hard thing about the book world is that you never know whether 10 people or a million people will find it interesting. A lot of people have never heard about big data and the ones who have, have a lot of trouble explaining it to other people. So I’m hoping that this will become the thing the people who know give to their parents or their family as a way of saying “this is why what I do is important.”

Obviously you’ve spent a lot of time thinking about all this during the last year, and you’ve probably been asked a million times if you think this is all creepy or intrusive in some way. Is it?

I’m an optimist. Every new tool can be used for good or evil. The whole point of doing this project is to start a conversation about it all. The people who are thinking most about big data right now are corporations and governments. I’d like to broaden the conversation and I hope the book makes some kind of contribution. I’m worried that the only ones profiting from it right now are corporations. As individuals we have very little say about how our data is being used. I’m not worried about the privacy implications of it so much. But it seems to me that as an individual, if I’m the one generating the data, I should have some kind of say in how it’s going to be used.

Did you have a particular favorite anecdote or photograph?

I just came back from Australia, and they have this expression down there: Gobsmacked. I think a lot of the pictures in the book convey that feeling. There are some that are funny, some that are just thought-provoking. There’s the case of the Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI) that creates these incredibly detailed satellite maps for governments. They found there were villages in Nigeria, which has the highest rate of polio resurgence in the world. There are villages there that have never shown up on any map, no one in the government knew they were there. ESRI can recognize the shape of huts and pathways. The Gates Foundation has been trying to eradicate polio in places like Nigeria, and they have a very big effort there. They took the satellite maps and handed out 10,000 GPS-enabled cellphones to polio workers. They could see where they were in real time, and make sure they got to each of the houses. We spent a week travelling with the polio workers watching them do their work. I think the idea of using satellites to help cure polio is a pretty interesting concept.

You have a lot of examples where understanding of big data is saving lives, which I think will surprise some people who don’t initially see it as having direct benefits for real people. What are some others?

There’s the case of the recent earthquake in Japan. I heard a fascinating story by Kai Ryssdal on Marketplace Radio about how 43 seconds before the shaking actually began, all the bullet trains and factories in Japan stopped running. It was all automated. That country spent 15 years and half a billion dollars to build the system that automated all of this. Obviously the devastation was horrible, but the system worked. Then I read about a group of engineers in Palo Alto that had created a program called Quake Catcher that uses the accelerometer in your laptop. Its the part in your laptop that detects when it’s been dropped and quickly moves the head on the drive drive before it smashes to the ground. It uses the same acceleromter to detect earthquakes. If it senses vibration and sees the same pattern over a 30-mile area, that’s an earthquake. On one side of the page, you have this huge half-billion dollar project, hardwired, dedicated parts that have to be replaced, lots of engineering time. And on the other you have this free ubiquitous crowdsourced mobile sensor system that has no profit motivation, and no cost. I love it. It’s a delightful story of people doing this to help each other. And the data just underpins it all.

Is there anything in the book that has some practical, everyday value?

Yes. There’s the example of Shwetak Patel, he’s a MacArthur Fellow and teaches at the University of Washington. He found a way to detect every device in the home and measure how much power it’s using. Every month we get a bill from the power company and we just pay it, we don’t even ask what it’s about. He’s created a sensor that can be plugged in anywhere in the house that detects the unique digital signature of everything that’s drawing power in the house — your computer, your toaster oven, whatever. I asked him if there was anything he had learned that would surprise the average American. He said it’s the DVR. The average American spends 11 percent of their monthly electrical bill on their DVR. It was designed in such a way that the hard drive never spins down, so even if you record only one show a week, it’s running the entire time and consuming power. So instead of drilling another oil well or burning more coal you could reduce America’s power bill by 5 percent just be redesigning the DVR. So many stories have this sense of delight: The data has been there all along, it’s just that no one was paying attention to it.

You’ve also done iPad and smartphone apps to enhance the book. What can you tell me about that?

I don’t know that anyone has ever done this with a book like this before, but there’s a free app you can download to your smartphone. Some of the pictures in the book have this little yellow key symbol in the corner. When you have the app, and you point the app at the page, it launches the page in the app. There are videos, there are Ted Talks. I think there are 22 or 23 videos. There’s an animated version of a story about pizza delivery guys in Midtown Manhattan. There’s also an iPad app, the profits from which go to charity: water, which is a nonprofit that’s working on bringing safe drinking water to people in developing nations. My goal here is to keep people turning the pages.

What do you want people to be left with in the end?

There’s an essay toward the back of the book called “Data Driven” by Jonathan Harris that has a really interesting thought. It’s that there is a relatively small group of people who are living in cities like San Francisco and New York, are mainly between the ages of 22 and 35, who are having an outsized effect on the rest of the human species. The kinds of societal changes that used to be the result of wars and famines are being brought about through software. …What I like about the essay is that EMC, which funded the book, had no right of review. I told them that this book wasn’t going to be all about cheerleading big data as the solution to all our problems. I said it was also going to sound a cautionary note because I think that right now governments and corporations are the ones having conversations about big data and that the average person isn’t. But it can have an effect on so many things in our lives, from our credit rating to our ability to get hired and our ability to do lots of things. I think it’s really important that we have this conversation now.

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Another gadget you don’t really need. Will not work once you get it home. New model out in 4 weeks. Battery life is too short to be of any use.

— From the fact sheet for a fake product entitled Useless Plasticbox 1.2 (an actual empty plastic box) placed in L.A.-area Best Buy stores by an artist called Plastic Jesus