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October 22, 2012

Measuring Our World: An Interview with Rick Smolan, Part 1

Photo Credit: Renowned photographer and journalist, Rick Smolan, is a man on a mission. Rick's latest project, the Human Face of Big Data, is a global attempt to measure our world by collecting and visualizing massive amounts of data in real time. The results will be groundbreaking, as staggering correlations will be made between human activity and the world, as we know it.

We caught up with Rick to chat about this unprecedented project. The conversation has been divided into a two part series.

How did you first discover big data? What is it?
Ihave a lot of friends in the technology world and this word, "Big Data," started popping up a year ago and I kept saying, "What is Big Data?" Everybody described it differently! One person would say to me, "Big Data is so much data, it can't fit on a personal computer." Then the next person would say, "No, no. Big Data is when you take data collected for different reasons by different organizations and overlap them and suddenly see these patterns that you could have never seen otherwise."

What kind of impact do you believe big data will have on the world?
The more that I've learned about big data, the more I think that this is going to have a bigger effect on the human species and on our planet than the Internet. If you'd asked somebody 15 or 20 years ago when the Internet first entered people's lives, was it really going to be transformative? I don't think anyone would have ever realized in less than 20 years that the Internet would become so inextricably woven into the fabric of life.

Can you tell us more about how the Human Face of Big Data smartphone app will work?
Yes, so it has three parts. It asks "Would you allow us to download the passive data that your phone collects about you?" And there are a lot of things your phone knows about you. It knows your radius of travel. It knows how many people you pass in the course of a day, because of Bluetooth handshakes. You get to see this view of your life in a way that you might not normally.

The second part is a series of very thought-provoking questions. We're asking you all these questions that appear to be sort of random, about politics and sex and sleep and relationships. But by triangulating all those, you suddenly see these patterns emerging.

What kind of activities make up the third part of the app?
One is going to help you find your data doppelganger. Somebody just like you on the other side of the world that answers the questions and has a data pattern just like you. Second activity is called, "Before I Die," which sounds creepy, but it isn't. It asks, "What's the one thing in your life, no matter what age you are, that you'd love to have said that you did?"

What do you hope to accomplish in your lifetime before you die?
View earth from outer space.

Want to find out where you fit in to the bigger picture of big data? Download our app on Android or on iOS.


Big Data ends where it begins — with people — when those numbers, generated by all of us, improve all our lives. The Human Face of Big Data tells the story of that circle, and your role in it. Big data is detecting earthquakes in tsunami-prone Japan, keeping traffic flowing on America's highways, foiling counterfeit pharmaceuticals, battling mosquitoes from outer space, and providing citizens in the developing world with much-needed identity documents. Explore examples and uncover all the ways Big Data is impacting our world.

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