Book review: The Human Face of Big Data, by Rick Smolan and Jennifer Erwitt

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 February, 2013, 6:33pm

The Human Face of Big Data

by Rick Smolan and Jennifer Erwitt

Against All Odds Productions

Putting a "human face" on big data is no small feat. The accumulation and analysis of zettabytes of data does not lend itself to narrating on a human scale to non-techies (and for non-techies, a zettabyte is 1 followed by 21 zeros). But with compelling storytelling, insightful essays, stunning photography and cool infographics, this large-format book does an admirable, even entertaining, job of showing how number-crunching on a colossal scale is relevant to all of us.

After all, we're generating the numbers, by posting on Facebook, tweeting on Twitter, searching on Google, swiping purchases through scanners, clicking almost anywhere on the internet - all of it recorded by billions of computers, smartphones, sensors and satellites.

But big data is not just masses of numbers. It's extracting meaning from the numbers "to find the hidden pattern, the unexpected correlation" that's leading to advances in almost every field, from match-making to child-rearing, farming to asteroid-hunting, health care to disaster recovery.

One might question its breathless claim that big data "may well turn out to be the most powerful tool set the human race has ever had to address the widespread challenges facing our species", but you will have a clearer idea of how that tool set is being used and why we should understand its implications.

Rick Smolan and Jennifer Erwitt are old hands at packaging global topics into coffee-table books. They were behind the Day in the Life series and use the same model of commissioning photographers, writers and artists to explore the digitalisation of our lives, for better or worse. Mostly for better, as might be expected in a glossy tome mainly sponsored by EMC, a data-storage company. Many of its 220 pages are devoted to stories about creative individuals and organisations amassing and mining data to expand knowledge, make better decisions, improve health and safety, and myriad other benefits.

Examples: Professor Deb Roy's recording of every moment of his son's first three years, 200 gigabytes of data a day, to analyse how babies learn language; and engineer Oliver Senn's study of 830 million GPS records that revealed why Singapore's taxis are scarce during rainstorms.

Introducing each section are essays on how big data is revolutionising the life sciences and other inspirational possibilities. But two of the 10 essays also dwell on the ethics of allowing big data to become Big Brother, as well as the frightening ways in which criminals, terrorists and hackers are abusing the technology. They are also the human face of big data.