The rapid proliferation of data from an ever-growing number and variety of sources is transforming every area of human activity that it touches, from commerce to education to healthcare, and offers unprecedented potential to overcome some of humanity’s most urgent challenges.
But the insight into every aspect of our lives and our world comes at a price. The documentary, The Human Face of Big Data, which airs tonight at 10 p.m. EST on PBS, looks at the promise and unintended consequences of the big data revolution. UPDATE: The Human Face of Big Data can be viewed at CuriosityStream.
Two years in the making, the one-hour film is a based partly on the coffee table book by Rick Smolan and Jennifer Erwitt and funded by several tech firms, including EMC, Cisco, VMware, and SAP. Smolan, the documentary’s producer, said the film conceptually is based on the book, but started with a “blank slate,” using only a few of the same examples. Smolan’s brother, award-winning film and documentary director Sandy Smolan, directed the documentary.
The idea for the project came from Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, who then was at Google. Rick Smolan ran into her at a TED conference in 2012, and she suggested he take on the topic of big data for his next project. Perhaps underscoring the potential audience for such a project, Smolan recalls his response was, “Big data? What’s that?”
Smolan recalls Mayer explaining that, “A lot of us think we are watching the planet evolve and develop a nervous system.”
“She had very specific examples and ended up spending half a day talking with me about it,” he said.
The book became a best-selling iPad app, and the movie promises to go even further in bringing an understanding of the impact of big data to a broader audience.
“One of the things that bothers me about big data is that it feels like companies and governments clearly see the power of big data, but the average person doesn’t,” Smolan said. “One of our goals is to kind of slap people in the face, to show them there’s a lot going on that affects you now and will affect your children and grandchildren.”
There are several tech celebrity sightings in the film, along with researchers working at the cutting edge of big data and analysts who follow it. “The average person experiences information totaling five exabytes of data in a day,” Google Chairman Eric Schmidt says in the film. “That’s about the same amount of information someone living in the 15th century would experience in their lifetime.”
A lot of the examples in the film focus around healthcare, and Smolan admits that while there are many diverse examples of big data in use today, healthcare was the most compelling.
As one example, he cites a segment of the film that highlights work done to prevent infants born prematurely from getting sick. The babies were monitored with sensors that took 7,000 measurements a day, but a researcher who had lost her own child after a premature birth noticed the data for the most part wasn’t analyzed or even saved. She was able to get funding from IBM for six months to collect and study the data. As a result, she was able to uncover a pattern that helped doctors predict when the babies would get sick and take proactive measures to prevent it.
“The idea of big data has been floating in the mainstream for quite some time,” analyst Tim Bajarin said at a recent screening of the film in Silicon Valley. “But now there is more understanding of its impact thanks to things like the book and the movie that clarify how all this data is being collected and how it impacts or lives. It’s a big challenge to make sense of it all, which is why you see companies like SAP involved.”
During a panel discussion following the screening, Linda Avey, a biologist and cofounder of the DNA testing company 23andme, discussed the role of data in understanding the human body. She said we are only at the early stages of being able to understand the body’s activities.
“In terms of what can be measured, our bodies generate exabytes of data even on an hourly basis,” she said. “There is a whole new set of learning to come from these sensors and devices people are wearing. And now that we are able to capture the data, the question always comes back to, ‘What do we do with it?’ ”
Avey said the collection of healthcare data via wearables and other means promises to “redefine disease” and help launch an era of personalized and precision medicine.
Panel moderator Michael Malone, a journalist and Silicon Valley historian, said that big data has more range than any new technology he has ever seen.
“I already see it impacting health and medicine, transportation, natural sciences, cosmology, retail, consumer customization, conservation, weather forecasting, and defense,” he said. “And I’m sure there are a hundred more areas I could think of.”
Director Sandy Smolan said the goal of the project – the book, app, and film – was to “spark a global conversation about the human aspects of big data and how it is changing our lives for better and worse. We are particularly thrilled that the film will now be reaching a global audience, starting with the national television premiere on PBS.”
Veteran technology reporter David Needle is based in Silicon Valley, where he covers mobile, enterprise, and consumer topics.
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