How Big Data Can Stop Traffic Jams and Much More
Policy + Politics

How Big Data Can Stop Traffic Jams and Much More

7 People Who Are Changing the World

REUTERS/Kacper Pempel/Files

Today a street stall in Mumbai can access more information, maps, statistics, academic papers, price trends, futures markets, and data than a U.S. president could only a few decades ago,” says Juan Enriquez of Excel Venture Management. That’s because, in a technologically driven world, data can be collected, analyzed and stored – helping all of us transition from sampling and polling “to having a complete census of enormous data sets... [Now] we can move from ‘I think I’m sure’ to ‘I know it, and I can prove it,’” says Enriquez.

The force behind numerous tech start-ups, including Synthetic Genomics and Zipcar, Enriquez is also a contributor to the new book The Human Face of Big Data. And he’s a believer, along with Rick Smolan and others, in an extraordinary knowledge revolution that has the potential to dramatically alter and influence economies, politics, health care, commerce and more.

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Here’s a look at 7 people (profiles courtesy of the book), who are using data to literally change the world:   

J. CRAIG VENTER:  Building Life
Famous for sequencing the human genome, Venter is rewriting the building blocks of life to create organisms whose entire genetic code is being assembled not by Mother Nature – but by humans.

Using massive computer processing and rapid genetic sequencing and manipulation, Venter is in the process of custom-building creatures such as bacteria, algae, and even plants to carry out industrial tasks and displace fossil fuels. The effort of his La Jolla-based company, Synthetic Genomics, is hardly pie in the sky: It’s backed by Exxon to the tune of $600 million.

“Everybody is looking for a naturally occurring alga that is going to be a miracle cell to save the world,” he told Scientific American. “After a century of looking, people still haven’t found it. We hope we’re different.”

DICK COSTOLO of Twitter:  Driving Consumers
The world’s largest real-time sensor network, Twitter is not just a gossip feed and conduit for personal observations by more than 140 million people – it uses sophisticated filters to extract sentiment about products and  drive consumers to them. CEO Dick Costolo told The New York Times, “Our business is an advertising business; we don’t sell technology.” Revenue for 2012 was roughly $400 million, with a projection of $1 billion by 2014.

Most of the company’s income comes from two products: promoted tweets (ordinary tweets purchased by advertisers who want to reach a wider group of users or spark engagement from existing followers); and from the sale of billions of tweets to companies that seek data to track national moods and commercial brand information.

It’s also an organizing tool in elections: With 60 percent of Twitter uses accessing the service on mobile devices, political campaigning can incorporate instant reactions in real time – reaching followers wherever they are.

SHWETAK PATEL:  Invoicing Energy   
Imagine receiving a credit card statement with no itemized list of monthly charges. Who would pay such a bill? Yet for decades, consumers have blindly paid electric and water bills without a clue as to how much each device in their home costs them to run each month.

That’s rapidly changing. Shwetak Patel, a computer science professor at the University of Washington, recognized that every device in our homes has a unique digital signature, detected through wireless sensors using existing infrastructure such as gas lines, electrical writing, plumbing and ventilation. Patel’s algorithms combined with sensors provide visual feedback on how much of each resource each appliance uses.

In 2010 he sold his technology to Belkin International. The company, commercializing the product, hopes to make transparency of energy and water data a standard feature of the American Dream.

Waze is a community driven app for mobile phones that gathers real-time travel data from users – traffic jams, accidents, roadblocks, speed traps and the like – to continuously update its maps to provide  personalized traffic updates and suggested reroutes. 

Created by three Israelis, Waze has 50,000 “volunteer mappers” who ensure that the maps of their communities are detailed and accurate – a number that will no doubt grow as the service expands beyond its current 13 countries and 22 million users.

Based in Silicon Valley, Waze can also gather house numbers, landmarks

 and other useful information. “Maps are living, breathing organisms that change on a daily basis,” Waze’s CEO, Noam Bardin, told The San Francisco Chronicle. “If you give the power to local people, you’re getting the best information.”

ROBERT CARTER of FedEx:  Delivering Goods
An average of nine million packages arrive each morning at FedEx locations around the globe. The company never knows what will come through the door – but by evening those packages are speeding toward their destinations in 220 countries and territories.

How does FedEx, which pioneered the use of Big Data to serve its customers, do it? The answer goes back to 1978, by FedEx founder and Chairman Fred Smith: “The information about the package is as important as the package itself.”

FedEx was one of the first companies to open up its databases on the Internet that so customers could query systems directly. Today, its systems handle about 2.2 billion transactions daily. 

Now the company is enabling packages to talk back. Active sensors such as SenseAware relay near-real-time metrics, including temperature, location and light – letting customers know at any moment where packages are and under what conditions. Chief information officer Robert Carter says delivery service should soon be smart enough to know whether you’re at home, work, or somewhere else – so trucks can drop the package at your door, wherever that might be.

GREG ASNER:  Saving Forests
This ecologist sees the world in six dimensions. He spends many of his days aboard a twin-propeller plane, gazing down on the Amazon rain forest. Every second, from 7,000 feet aboveground, Asner can sample 10 hectares of rain forest in intricate detail.

A project of the Carnegie Institution, the plane can crisscross an area roughly 30 times the size of Manhattan (about 600 square miles), generating as much as 2 terabytes of data. To grab that, three sensors – a laser bouncing off the forest floor 400,000 times per second, and two spectrometers – paint an intricate map of the forest’s shape and identify plant species. The images deepen our understanding of tropical forests, which disappear at the rate of 124 square miles a day.

“People running tape measures around trees,” says Asner in the journal Nature, “this is what we’ve got to get away from.” 

CLAIRE ROBERTSON:  Capturing Memories
Most people wish for a photographic memory at some point in time. Claire Robertson is one of the first in the world to wear a groundbreaking artificial enhanced memory device called SenseSam, a wide-angle digital necklace camera that includes storage.

It allows Robertson, who lost her episodic memory to a viral infection, to relive her recent life. Reviewing images brings memories flooding back vividly for patients in a way that written accounts and standard posed pictures do not, says neuropsychologist Catherine Loveday.

The device takes a photo every 30 seconds. At the end of each day, it uploads the images to a personal computer, where Claire can review her visual diary and discuss it with loved ones. SenseCam is being tested on Alzheimer’s patients and obesity patients – and of course there are commercial applications. 

This article is second in a series about the Big Data project by Rick Smolan and Jennifer Erwitt, which you can read more about here. Source: The Human Face of Big Data.