Big Data is Changing Our Lives

 To say that “big data is changing our lives” seems obvious enough, but sometimes relating big data to our day to day existence may not always seem so obvious. Rick Smolan makes brings these changes to life through his photography, book and talks about “The Human Face of Big Data.” While researching for the book, Smolan traveled the globe, talking with experts from a range of fields about the meaning of big data. He is committed to explaining big data in a way that people care about it and see value in it. In talking with experts, Smolan found range of definitions for big data some of which include,

  • more information than can fit on a personal computer
  • more than just quantity of information the ability to navigate patterns within the data
  • a nervous system at the heart of the planet

Another way to talk about big data is to consider that information is being collected all the time, in all sorts of situations by all sorts of tools such as satellites, billions of sensors, RFID tags, GPS enabled mobile devices, and more. The discussion can be quickly reduced to talk about bits of information and various technologies, but what Smolan does is to keep reminding us of the ways big data is making a change. For example, in a recent interview with Cisco, Smolan highlights how big data saved lives in the 2011 earthquake in Japan.

“There’s a little-known fact, says Smolan, “Every factory in Japan and every bullet train stopped 43 seconds before the earthquake hit because of Japan’s early warning system. They put that in place to mitigate effects. There are two different kinds of waves that occur in an earthquake and one is a low vibration wave that comes literally seconds before the damaging earthquake shock wave. Japan spent 15 years and half a billion dollars putting this early earthquake warning system in place, and it works. Even though the devastation was so awful – you can just imagine how much worse it could have been for people if they’d been on a moving bullet train when the tracks were shifted by the earthquake.”[1]

While Smolan’s book costs over $35, Cisco helped underwrite the distribution of Smolan’s work on an iPad app that only costs $2.99. Filled with interactive audio/video pages, high definition photographs, infographics, and in-depth article, this app offers users a glimpse inside the wide ranging world of big data. Smolan shows how big data is helping aging adults, impacting revolutions around the globe, busting international crime rings, studying the bottom of the ocean, developing a driverless cars and much more.


Smolan explains how big data is using low-tech solutions to fight polio in Nigeria.

[It] has the highest resurgence of polio in the world. The Gates Foundation is making a concerted effort to try to eradicate polio by making sure everybody in the country gets inoculated. But for many reasons, religious and societal, it’s been very hard to get inoculation workers out to the right parts of the country and reach the people who need the inoculations desperately.

The other problem they discovered very recently is that, looking at satellite maps of Nigeria, they found villages that did not exist on any government maps, and nobody even knew these people were there. Nigerian maps were not current because villages come into being and grow faster than they can be tracked. Satellite imagery showed huts and paths to indicate there were whole villages that nobody knew existed.

They gave out thousands of GPS-enabled cell phones to the inoculation workers, who are able now to go house-to-house and hut-to-hut in both known and previously unknown villages, making sure that every single person in Nigeria gets inoculated. We sent a photographer to accompany the inoculation workers for a week, and the pictures are just fantastic.

According to Smolan, the average person today will process “more data in a single day than a person in the 1500′s did in an entire lifetime.” Since all of us are participating in this world awash in data, it might helpful to get a clearer sense of the major developments and how it might impact our businesses and business plans.

[1] Carlos Dominguez. “Continuing Conversation: Rick Smolan and the human face of big data.” Cisco Blog, May 20, 2013.