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Rick Smolan says “Big Data” may be more transformative than the Internet

Rick Smolan

Rick Smolan

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This week, I’m going to be speaking at TEDxMidwest and sharing a fascinating adventure I’ve been on with 100 of the most talented journalists in the world.

I have one of the best jobs on the planet. Every 18 months, I get to dispatch a team of these talented journalists around the globe, where they’re assigned to capture the human face behind emerging topics. Our team’s previous book projects have focused on the Internet the first year it began touching peoples lives (“24 Hours in Cyberspace”), exploring how the human race is learning to heal itself (“The Power to Heal”), and immersing ourselves in the global water crisis (“Blue Planet Run”). This past year, we’ve tried to decipher a strange new land, widely referenced in labs and boardrooms from Palo Alto to Bangalore: The world of “Big Data” (“The Human Face of Big Data”).

My 10-year-old son Jesse recently heard me speaking on the phone about this project and asked me what Big Data is. I struggled to come up with an analogy that would make sense to him and finally said, “Imagine if the whole human race had been looking through one eye for all of our existence, and all of a sudden, scientists gave us the ability to open up a second eye. What we’re seeing with two eyes is not just more vision, more data; we’re literally getting able to perceive a whole new dimension. That’s what Big Data is — not simply more information, but an entirely new way to see or extract meaning from that sea of information.” My son asked if computers could let us open up a third and a fourth and even a thousandth eye. And I said, “That’s exactly what’s beginning to happen all over the world — Big Data is giving us a brand new way to see things.”

Over the last year, my team and I have asked many experts to help us understand what Big Data really means. Some define Big Data as more than can fit on a personal computer. Others say it isn’t just the quantity of information, but the tools that show the patterns within it. Still others choose to be metaphorical: Big Data, they say, is the process of helping the planet grow a nervous system, one in which we are just another (human) type of sensor.

But in interview after interview, one unifying message became clear: The real-time visualization of data streaming in from satellites, and from billions of sensors, RFID tags and GPS-enabled cameras and smartphones, 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.

What we discovered is an extraordinary knowledge revolution that’s sweeping, almost invisibly, through business, academia, government, health care and everyday life. Here are a few of my favorite examples from the book:

• MIT computer scientists John Guttag and Collin Stultz created a computer model to analyze formerly discarded EKG data of heart attack patients. By sifting through the massive quantities of data and identifying patterns that lead to greater heart attack risk, they’ve created a model that has the potential to significantly improve today’s risk-screening techniques, which misidentify roughly 70 percent of patients likely to have a repeat heart attack.

• The U.S. government has turned to a private company in Palo Alto, Calif., called Palantir which has software capable of taking vast quantities of information (credit card transactions, tapped phone calls, emails, videos, etc.) and quickly identifying patterns that help them identify potential terrorist threats.

• General Electric and Intel have a joint project aimed at helping seniors more safely age at home. One of their prototypes is called The Magic Carpet, which can analyze a person’s gait or balance and can predict if they’re going to fall — two days in advance.

When we began this project, I was skeptical of the many claims I heard that Big Data might one day turn out to be more transformative than the Internet. Having now spent a year delving into every nook and cranny, I have become a convert. I’m convinced that Big Data will turn out to be the most powerful tool the human race has ever had to address many of the widespread challenges facing our species and our planet.

Like all new tools, Big Data carries the potential for unintended consequences. But if we are careful and wise, in the not-too-distant future this new set of technologies may end up having an impact on humanity as great as those of language and art.

Rick Smolan will be speaking at TEDxMidwest at the Harris Theatre on May 2. Live streaming video will be available at

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