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Information Nation: Digital Social Experiment to Put a Human Face on Big Data

Photographer Rick Smolan has launched a two-month social project to connect large volumes of information with the people producing it



Courtesy of Scientific American/Larry Greenemeier

Imagine seeing life through one eyeball but then being given the ability to view the world through two or even three eyeballs at once. You would be greeted with not just more data about your surroundings but a better perspective of how all of that data fit together.

This is the explanation that photographer Rick Smolan gave to his 10-year-old son when asked the meaning of "big data," according to a story he recounted Tuesday at an event he organized in New York City to announce his latest social experiment: The Human Face of Big Data.

For years researchers and technology companies have talked up the notion that extracting meaning from massive amounts of sensor data—produced everywhere from the oceans' depths to city streets to satellites circling the planet—will have a profound impact on the quality of our lives. Smolan's project—launched through his production company Against All Odds and sponsored primarily by EMC Corp.—seeks to highlight big data's potential by culling information directly from mobile gadget users worldwide.

For the next two months The Human Face of Big Data is inviting Google Android and Apple iOS mobile device users to answer 60 questions made available in eight languages. The queries touch on a wide variety of users' beliefs, rituals and hopes. One question, for example, hypothetically asks, "If you could enhance your unborn child's DNA in only one way, would you choose: Immunity, Life Span/Longevity, Intelligence, Appearance or Nothing?" Based on the more than 1.5 million answers received through Tuesday morning, it's already clear that respondents who believe in a supreme being are less likely than other participants to want to alter an unborn child's DNA in any way.

Other questions ask respondents where they feel safest in the world, how they cope with stress, what rituals they perform for good luck and one thing they hope to accomplish before they die.

Data collected thus far has come from Android users. Whereas that mobile app launched on September 26, the iOS version currently is languishing in Apple's app vetting process. Project organizers hope to release it soon.

The free mobile apps also automatically gather usage and location data from participants' mobile devices throughout the survey period, which ends November 20. When enough data is collected, participants will be able to access anonymous information about their "data doppelganger"—the age, location, gender, percentage of questions answered and other stats of another participant whose profile most closely matches their own.

Smolan and his team plan to make all project data public, but identifying data will not even be collected. The Human Face of Big Data Web site states that the information gathered through the mobile apps will be used for "noncommercial, educational purposes and is intended to provide a fun look at how each user's answers compare with those of other users around the world." The apps do not solicit users' names, e-mail addresses or other contact information, and users need not create a username or password to participate. "Big data is not Big Brother," Smolan said.

The project launch event in Manhattan—similar events were hosted in London and Singapore—featured a number of speakers elucidating the potential impact of big data. Juan Enriquez, managing director of Excel Venture Management, posited that a person's presence online via blogs, social networks and photos can be thought of as digital tattoos, and that the availability of this information via search engines grants people a kind of immortality. Aside from any permanence that can be achieved, Esther Dyson, a venture capitalist and former journalist, pointed out that improvements in the collection and analysis of diet, exercise and sleep data can also help people on a more prosaic level by enabling healthier lifestyles.

A key component of big data is its dissemination, something that charity: water, a nonprofit organization, is leveraging in its effort to make clean drinking water available in developing nations. Founder and CEO Scott Harrison pointed out at Tuesday's event that people are more willing to donate to a cause when they think their money will be used to solve a problem, rather than to pay for administrative costs and employee salaries.

So, charity: water, which has raised $74 million in donations in the past six years, shares a variety of data with donors. Some of the drill rigs used to dig wells have dedicated Twitter feeds to provide equipment status updates in real time and assure donors that their money is being well spent.
 

[View the story "The Human Face of Big Data mission control:NYC" on Storify]

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