Harnessing Big Data to “Address the Pressing Issues of our Time”

By October 11, 2012
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The enormous volumes of data people generate could help humanity as a whole to get a better grasp of such problems as the increasing scarcity of resources by increasing our knowledge of the way things work on a local and individual level.

Real-time access to data collected by satellites and billions of sensors, radio frequency identification (RFID) labels, cameras and GPS-enabled smartphones could help mankind to grasp, analyse and then address some key existential issues. This is the idea behind the Human Face of Big Dataprogramme, as explained at ‘Mission Control’ events in London, New York and Singapore on 2 October. This multimedia participatory project, initiated by photographer Rick Smolanand sponsored by EMC²,a data management products and services company,is based on the crowdsourcing approach. First of all a mobile app is being used to collect basic data on how people move about and to put more personal questions to volunteers. All this information will then be made freely available, for example enabling companies or NGOs to obtain a better grasp of basic societal problems and address them more effectively. The aim of the project is to see how enormous volumes of data can nowadays be gathered, analysed, and visualised in real time. The ultimate goal is to draw real benefits from Big Data by getting close to people’s day-to-day lives and improving the general response to issues in society, such as addressing the increasing scarcity of resources, forecasting and providing alerts on climate-related disasters, regulating traffic and improving people’s behaviour.

Making sense of huge data harvest

Dave Menninger, Head of Business Development and Strategy at EMC Greenplum, a division of EMC², told L’Atelier that “the Human Face of Big Data concept is not about the size of the project but the insights people can get from the data being created and packaged.”  Rick Smolan, the project initiator, points out that everyone carrying a smartphone has become a human sensor, part of the central nervous system for the planet.  “Our increasing ability to sense and measure the world in real time is something our planet has never seen before. From curing diseases to conserving precious resources such as water and energy, Big Data may well be the exact toolset we need to address many of the most pressing issues of our time,” he enthused.  To achieve this sort of result, the Human Face of Big Data project of course needs a large number of people to take part.  The next step is then to illustrate and communicate the data – i.e. to make sense of what has been garnered.  With this in mind, a book featuring photographs and written articles with graphics is also scheduled for publication on 20 November and a series of videos from the Mission Control presenters will be uploaded on the HumanFaceOfBigData.com site soon.

Mobile application to gather data

The project kicked off with the launch of a free mobile app on 25 September to encourage smartphone owners to volunteer to help “measure our world”.  The initial phase ended on 2 October when early results were presented at the Mission Control events.  The app is designed to harvest ‘passive’ data throughout the day, such as the distance you travel measured using a digital map.  More ‘active’ data is being collected by asking the volunteers direct questions about family, trust issues, sleep patterns, etc and also from uploaded photos. Then they get to see how their profile measures up.  “Once volunteers have contributed the basic data and completed their answers, they can use the app to go in search of their ‘data doppelganger’ -   individuals similar to them based on the answers provided,” explained Dave Menninger. He stressed that the information collected will be used for “non-commercial, educational purposes.” When the experiment closes on 20 November, the anonymised data will be made available so that it can be used as a basis for new ideas and improvements in a range of fields and sectors.


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