Talking big data, Earth's "nervous system" with Rick Smolan

Earlier today, I had the unique opportunity to be a guest on The Huffington Post’s HuffPost Live, a sort of roundtable discussion of topics ranging from politics to technology to lifestyle. The segment featured Rick Smolan, a former Time Magazine and National Geographic photographer. In his interview with Josh Zepps, Smolan discussed “The Human Face of Big Data,” a mobile app launching tomorrow that will survey users across the globe about their behavior patterns and personal preferences, and optionally track users’ activities throughout the day. He plans to begin the process of interpreting all this data at “Mission Control,” a media event he’s holding just a week from tomorrow that will “gather the best minds in Big Data.”1

HuffPost Live segments typically feature such an interview as their focus, and then welcome guests from relevant communities to engage in discussion with the interviewee via video conference. My two primary concerns regarding The Human Face of Big Data (a.k.a. #HFOBD – it’s just easier to type) were whether users would provide honest responses to the survey questions and how the collected data would be made available.

In response to my first concern, Smolan noted that all survey questions are anonymously aggregated; thus, he argued, users would be unlikely to feel compelled to give answers that portrayed themselves favorably, since no one would know who they were. Nonetheless, I would contend that one’s instinct is to answer according to ideals held about oneself – even if those ideals do not align entirely with reality.

Secondly, Smolan confirmed that the data collected via the #HFOBD project would be made freely available via a public API. He will not charge for access to the API, thus allowing developers, researchers, artists, etc. to use it as they please.

A related question I would have liked to ask is what sort of picture Smolan expects will be painted by this data. Will the distilled data present sociological insights that will be primarily of interest to academicians? Or will its greatest demand come from the commercial sector – businesses that seek to better target their marketing by using highly granular demographical data? In all likelihood, this question will only be answered in eight days at Mission Control.

Just before the HuffPost segment, I signed up to be notified the instant #HFOBD for iOS is released. I’ll be downloading it tomorrow, and I plan to follow up with a review of the app in about a week, when Smolan presents his findings to the media.

You can watch the HuffPost Live segment via the embedded video above, or at the HuffPost Live website.

  1. The Human Face of Big Data - About