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FedEx Blog

An Interview with Rick Smolan, creator of THE HUMAN FACE OF BIG DATA

December 4, 2012

As a company with a long history as a technology innovator and one that uses big data on a daily basis to provide our customers with the best possible logistics services, we are proud to be sponsoring the Human Face of Big Data project. This is a globally crowdsourced media project focusing on people’s ability to collect, analyze, triangulate and visualize vast amounts of data in real time.

The main focal point of the project is a large format book containing over 200 stories, photographs and images that aim to illustrate just some of the astounding ways that big data is helping to shape and improve the world around us.

Today, we are delivering copies of the book to 10,000 of the world’s most influential people, in the hope of sparking a global conversation about this crucial topic. Today also marks the release of the accompanying iPad app, which gives users a chance to actively engage with many of the fascinating stories, photographs and images included in the book.

We sat down with the creator of the Human Face of Big Data project, Rick Smolan, to talk about his background, the idea behind this project and what he is hoping it will achieve.

Q. THE HUMAN FACE OF BIG DATA follows your tremendously successful Day in the Life series and America 24/7.  How did you put these projects together and is there a common theme that links them?

A. Our projects have always been about teamwork.  Every 18 months we gather a global tribe of nearly 200 researchers, photographers, writers, illustrators and designers and we challenge them to collaborate in capturing the human face of something new on the horizon, a topic in its infancy. These projects have focused on the Internet the year it began to impact peoples lives (“24 Hours in Cyberspace”), on how the human race is learning to heal itself (“The Power to Heal”) and the global water crisis (“Blue Planet Run”).

Q. What was your overall goal in producing THE HUMAN FACE OF BIG DATA?

A. The ability to collect, analyze, triangulate and visualize vast amounts of data in real time is something the human race has never had before.  This new set of tools, often referred to by the lofty term “Big Data” has begun to emerge as a new approach to addressing some of the biggest challenges facing our planet.  Some of the experts we interviewed in the course of putting the project together have gone so far as to describe this as being akin to the planet suddenly developing a nervous system. We thought this would be the perfect time to spark a thoughtful global conversation about a set of emerging technologies that have the potential to have a bigger impact on civilization than the Internet.

Q. You made publishing history with your book, America 24/7, by inviting the public to shoot and submit photos alongside the world’s top professionals and you also enabled readers to customize their book covers.  That book was an enormous success.  Now you’ve added a smartphone app to this project to allow the public to share and compare information. How does this Big Data project represent “crowdsourcing?”

A. The Human Face of Big Data is by far the most ambitious and far-reaching body of work that our team has ever attempted. To encourage people around the globe to participate we built an app that enables anyone with a smartphone to anonymously compare and share their lives over a two-month period. Utilizing the sensors in smartphones phones, combined with responses to thought-provoking questions, the app allows participants around the globe to share and compare views on family, sleep, trust, sex and luck.  The app is available in eight languages: English, Mandarin (simplified), Japanese, Portuguese, Spanish, French, Korean and Russian.

Q. How did you come up with the photographs that appear in the book?

A. We put together a team of top researchers who spent months finding photographs and compiling assignments for professional photographers that we dispatched around the world.  Our first priority was to make sure the photographs would be geographically, ethnically, economically and thematically diverse. The pictures have an amazing sense of intimacy – people in more than 30 countries are featured and in every case the theme is about how data, sometimes big and sometimes soon to be big, is touching such an astounding array of human life around the world today.

Q. What was the photographers’ assignment and how do you feel about the results?   

A. We invited a talented group of over 200 men and women whose careers included senior positions at Time, Newsweek, Sports Illustrated, Rolling Stone, the NY Daily News, National Geographic, GEO Magazine, etc. We challenged this team to find evocative, surprising, amusing, touching images that resonate with people of all ages and backgrounds. Some of the pictures in The Human Face of Big Data will bring tears to your eyes, others are so surprising or memorable that you just have to show them to your friends and family.

Q. How do you explain the concept of Big Data to the average person?

A. My ten year old son recently heard me speaking on the phone about this project and asked me 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.  You’re not just getting more information, more data; you’re literally getting a whole new dimension. You’re getting depth and perspective, 3D vision. That’s what Big Data is, not simply more information but a new way to see or extract meaning from a sea of information.”  He asked if computers could let us open up a third and a fourth and even a thousandth eyes? And I said “yes, exactly” that’s what’s beginning to happen all over the world – Big Data is giving us a brand new way to see things.

Q. What are some of your favorite stories in The Human Face of Big Data book?

A. There are a number of fascinating stories included in The Human Face of Big Data which represent some of the most innovative applications of data that are shaping our future. Here are a couple of my favorites:

Shwetak Patel is a 27-year-old MacArthur Fellow that has invented a chip you plug into your house that recognizes the digital signature of every appliance that consumes electricity. This provides the type of itemized insight into energy consumption that hasn’t existed before and can lead to greater efficiencies in how we consume energy. For instance, the average American spends 11 percent of their electrical bill on their DVR. If we were to reengineer the DVR, we would cut America’s energy bill by 5 percent.

The book also shines a spotlight into how we are now taking data sets and extracting greater meaning from them that we weren’t able to in the past. Researchers John Guttag and Collin Stultz have created a computer model to analyze formerly discarded EKG data of heart attack patients. By sifting through the massive quantities of data and applying the model, they’ve discovered patterns we’ve never seen before. By identifying patterns in the data that lead to greater risk, their model 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.

And, of course, the FedEx story is very compelling. FedEx is known as pioneer of Big Data, creating what is considered the world’s first transactional website.  The world today is driven forward by technology and FedEx has been at the forefront of that drive for decades.

Q. The Human Face of Big Data represents a unique partnership with home cloud computing and IT solutions provider EMC.  Why did EMC collaborate with you on a book that includes no product promotion, and what were their main contributions to the project? Are there any other companies that helped support this project?

A. EMC, known and respected widely in the business world is not a company name known to many consumers. But they’re a real leader in the field and the business of Big Data, by helping IT departments to store, manage, protect and analyze their most valuable asset — information. EMC recognized that by helping us spark a global conversation about Big Data – what it is, what its potential is – not just for business, but also for humanity – would be a good way to connect the company to the public more widely. EMC has been a great partner throughout the course of this project, and their support has been essential towards making it such a success.

The Human Face of Big Data project is also receiving support from leading global companies like FedEx, who will be delivering the book to 10,000 of the most influential people in 30 countries on December 4, including world leaders, Fortune 500 CEOs, Pulitzer prize winners, and more. Additional key partners include Cisco, Originate, Tableau, and VMware.

Q. What is Data Detectives and why do you feel that engaging students is so important to the overall goal of starting a global conversation about the impact Big Data is having on humanity?

A. Young people will live in a world that is shaped by Big Data. That is why this year we are encouraging students in grades 6-12 and their teachers around the world to engage in data collecting activities to measure, analyze, and map their worlds. The activities, which we kicked off at TEDYouth in November,  connect thousands of students around the world and allow them to compare their opinions, thoughts, concerns, and beliefs through exciting data visualizations and graphics.

Q. You are also releasing an interactive iPad app to supplement the stories told in the book. Why is it important to you to use the iPad as another way to bring these stories to life?

A. The iPad has profoundly changed the ways people consume and experience content, and in order to tell the most compelling story possible, we felt it was important to take advantage of this exciting new medium in a way that hasn’t been done before. The Human Face of Big Data iPad app is one of the most exciting and innovative ways we’ve used technology to tell an important story. It will feature a selection of the stories in the book as well as interactive content that allows the user to really engage with the stories from the book.  

Another first for us is that the book will be the first book of its kind to be powered by a VIEWER app that allows readers to access video and other additional digital content by simply pointing the camera on their smartphone or tablet towards flagged photos within the book. Scanning the pages will bring content to life and enable readers to watch expanded videos about the stories.
We are also really excited because all the proceeds from the app, which costs $2.99, will be donated to charity:water, a non-profit organization bringing clean, safe drinking water to people in developing nations. It is great that through the work we are doing, and in spreading the word about big data and its impact both now and in the future, we are also able to support great causes such as this one.

Q. Why is it so important for individuals all over the globe to understand the power of Big Data?

A. We did this project with the intention to start a global conversation not just about Big Data, but also about who owns the data all of us generate. My main concern is that the people who are currently thinking the most about the power of Big Data are corporations and governments, rather than ordinary individuals whose lives will all be affected by the decisions being made now.

I keep coming back to a quote from my friend John Battelle of Federated Media that I believe captures the essence of the important moment that we’re in. John perhaps put it best when he said the following.

“I believe we are in a critical moment in our civilization’s development, one where we will face a number of fateful decisions about how we interact with each other, with business, and with government. 

The decisions we make during this period will frame the kind of world we’ll leave to future generations. 

Who will control the data we create? What access will we allow citizens to the machinations of government? What kind of people will we become when every single one of us is deeply connected to a socially aware platform like Facebook? 

Are we building systems – in healthcare, energy, finance – that are too complicated for any of us to understand, much less control?”


    Vb Joshi says:

    Very well written and analysed! We indeed are living in extraordinary times. data exists in several disguised formats and has reached the nth dimension so much so that mining it would require super computers! FedEx is a true representation of how to handle Big Data and make sense out of the data mine!
    I will look for the iPad app to dive deeper into the data abyss!

    Cpat says:

    I think one of the biggest breakthroughs that big data changes is that that you now have the capacity (at the right cost) now to statistically measure every occurrence and no longer need to take a sample. This increases real time feedback and variance analysis. Temporal analysis of trends, how things change over time also becomes reality as you can now go back and look at how things have moved / progressed over time not just as snapshots. The computing power to do this type of analysis was out of reach due to costs. We will see massive changes in data analysis in the next few years as we can now tap into these insights for a fraction of what it would have cost just a few years ago.

    Suzy says:

    Completely visionary and innovative on framing the very complex issues and choices around Big Data! Really enjoyed how the interview evolved the discussion away from incremental, integration focused, and suboptimal Big Data applications to a thoughtful way forward with a great give back to charity:water.

    MayLyn says:

    Just reading this wonderful information about the Human Face Of Big Data is getting me exited to read the book, and what makes it better is that FedEx is apart of it! Thank you for posting this!

    Keith Penney says:

    The “spectacles” (mining and modeling tools) to see this vision however come at a great costs and again easily separate the “haves” and the “have not’s” in a whole new way.

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