How You're Shaping the Future Through 'Big Data'
Policy + Politics

How You're Shaping the Future Through 'Big Data'

Got a Credit Card? Or a Smart Phone? You’re a Data Researcher’s Dream

Today, all across the globe, "we’re taking information out of the system," says Rick Smolan, co-creator of an ambitious new project that includes a book, The Human Face of Big Data, and a companion iPad app. "Think about it. We may be looking for a doctor, a pharmacy, the best medicine for a sore throat. But we’re not only extracting that information, we’re actively searching for it."

That’s the difference in a technologically driven world. "We’re indicating that there’s a need for that information. And if three percent of the population of New York City, for example, is suddenly searching for cough medicine, maybe there’s a flu epidemic coming. Way before your doctor even knows about this – Google knows. It has a tool called flu trends and suddenly it sees the spike in search traffic." The next question, logically, is this: What should Google do with that information?

The key to the giant wave of technology-driven information known as Big Data is analyzing it and organizing it to understand patterns of behavior and trends that are predictive. Using detailed polling data and analysis, statistician Nate Silver of The New York Times correctly predicted state voting results in this year’s U.S. election – a well-known example by now of data-driven conclusions.

But many people believe Big Data has the power to actually change governments, drive policy, influence economies, improve our health care, recalibrate brand perceptions – and so much more.

Smolan is one of those people. He told The Fiscal Times, "This is going to be a thousand times more influential than the Internet." Why? "It’s an extraordinary knowledge revolution that’s sweeping almost invisibly through business, academia, government, health care and everyday life. It’s already enabling us as a society to provide healthier lives for our children and to provide seniors with independence while keeping them safe."

Well known for his "Day in the Life" book series and for his years at Time and other publications, Smolan also cites the ability to understand our genetic makeup and to create new forms of life. Yes, like other new tools, Big Data carries the potential for unintended consequences. "But we’ve barely scratched the surface" of what this new tool can do, he says.

Esther Dyson, an angel investor whose portfolio includes 23andMe, Genomera and PatientsLikeMe, agrees. "Today’s Big Data tools, stunning as they are, are only the beginning," she writes in an essay in the book. "The Computer Age as we’ve known it is ending. And what will replace it – perhaps we’ll call it the Informatics Age – will be a kind of Copernican Revolution in knowledge. Humans will no longer be the center of the data solar system, with all of the billions of devices orbiting around us, but will rather become just another player, another node, in an increasingly autonomous data universe."

Anyone who carries a smart phone around has an inkling of just how this is happening – and happening almost invisibly. Smolan says that "the real-time visualization of data streaming in from satellites, from billions of sensors, RFID tags, and GPS-enabled cameras and smart phones is enabling humanity to sense, measure, understand and affect aspects of our existence in ways our ancestors could never have imagined in their wildest dreams."

"Nobody could have imagined 20 years ago that being able to measure things could not only be possible, but cost-effective," he says. "Imagine that instead of doing a random sampling of something and then extrapolating from that sample, you could actually listen to, let’s say, the heartbeat of every single person on earth. If you actually could do that – if we were all wearing little devices that allowed that to happen – then what a fascinating way of sensing the planet as a living, breathing, moving organism."

Beyond that is being able to "connect the dots on it."

Smolan uses this ground-floor example: "When you say to your kids, ‘Don’t eat a Big Mac because 20 years from now you may die of cancer,’ well, what does that really mean? But if you could actually show the moment you ate something what it did to your blood sugar and what it did to your organs, and you could say, ‘Because of eating that, you just took six months off your life’ – it’s no longer a debate. You can see cause and effect linked. Right now, so much of what we do is guesswork."

"Companies and governments are trying to do the most with this information right now," says Smolan, "particularly when it comes to something like a health crisis. But think about life in China right now. For the Chinese [government], the iPhone must be a godsend. Everyone’s planting tracking devices on themselves! If 10 years ago someone had said, ‘Let me put a device on you so that I know where you are every second of the day, what you’re doing and who you’re with, what you bought, what you looked at’ – well, now we’re lining up to plant these devices on ourselves because it’s convenient."

Smolan and his partner, Jennifer Erwitt, believe so strongly in the vitality of Big Data that they sent their new book to some of the world’s most influential people, including the CEOs of Amazon, Starbucks and Yahoo, Oprah Winfrey and Michael Bloomberg, New York’s mayor. The goal behind their project, they say, is to "ignite a conversation about an extraordinary knowledge revolution."

Clearly, this conversation has just begun.

As Dyson says, "Soon we will salt the oceans, the land, and the sky with uncounted numbers of sensors invisible to the eyes but visible to one another and to a variety of data collection devices. The vast, increasingly accurate data streams will combine and interact to produce more and more meaningful caches of knowledge."

This is the first in a series of articles about the Big Data project. You can read more about it here.