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Looking at the Human Face of Big Data

While the trendy term "big data" is a bit nebulous and undefined, there's simply no question that individuals, businesses, and society as a whole are creating and using data at a rate that is magnitudes beyond that of just a few years ago.

Still, it's often very hard to get a handle on what all of that data really represents. That's what Rick Smolan and Jennifer Erwitt are trying to illustrate, though, in The Human Face of Big Data, a new book (out tomorrow) that attempts to capture what it all looks like through a series of wonderful photographs and short essays that each examine a part of the big data phenomenon.

Smolan talked about the book at last month’s Techonomy conference over in Arizona, saying that big data will impact our lives more than the Internet has.

That's certainly the feel you get from the book, which features a series of vignettes, usually showing one main picture with a prominent caption that explains how data has been used in the past, and how it is being used now. For instance, it includes photos of Bills of Mortality, a book that recorded deaths during the plague in London in 1664, and of IBM Watson becoming a Jeopardy! champion last year.

It's not surprising that Smolan, creator of the Day in the Life books, would create a book that looks great, and the photos often tell important stories. I like the juxtaposition of a photo of the FBI's records department in 1943 next to one of the WikiLeaks data facilities in Stockholm today.

But most of the stories are smaller and discuss very specific instances ranging from weather monitoring impacting farm insurance to GPS-enabled smartphones tracking the spread of smallpox. The book covers a range of topics within the big data concept including sensors, health and fitness monitoring, crowdsourcing, advertising, and data-driven art.

As you might expect with a project that was sponsored by EMC, VMware, Cisco, FedEx, Originate, and Tableau, it's all a bit promotional. Many of the individual stories have a "gee whiz" feel without much room for real analysis or scepticism. The larger essays – still typically only the size of a good opinion editorial piece and generally reprinted from other places – bring a bit more perspective to the endeavour. Michael Malone perhaps sums it up best:

"Ultimately, Big Data offers the potential for a kind of Copernican Revolution in knowledge. It won't come easily; it may cost us much of the privacy we now hold dear. And it won't come soon…. But the upside is so staggering that few will refuse it. After all, we now have the chance to become the centre of our own knowledge universe."

In addition, the book has a number of interesting infographics that show how data is being used. There's also a companion viewer app made by HP's Aurasma that is supposed to load videos to accompany some of the pictures. (This did not work for me, however; all I ever got was an indication that the video was loading).

If a £22 coffee table book seems a bit much, there's a £1.99 iPad application that includes about half the content. In some ways, it does a better job of showing off the content because it starts with a home page that breaks out the book into 68 individual sections. (In the book version, these little sections are grouped into about a dozen larger sections).

There are also some nice extras; for instance, in a spread on the "life-logging" project of Microsoft's Gordon Bell, you can press a button to see some more pictures from his life. At this price, it's a particularly good deal and an inexpensive way to get a great overview of the big data phenomenon.

In general, The Human Face of Big Data interestingly details how data is being used in a variety of industries, projects, and fields. It's more of a broad overview than a deep dive, but it's an effective way to learn about the wide array of areas where big data is now being employed.

Image Credit: Copyright Catherine Balet "Strangers in the light" (Steidl) 2012 / from The Human Face of Big Data

Michael J. Miller is Chief Information Officer at Ziff Brothers Investments, a private investment firm. Mr. Miller, who was editor-in-chief at PC Magazine from 1991-2005, authors this blog for PC Magazine to share his thoughts on PC-related products. No investment advice is offered in this blog. All duties are disclaimed. Mr. Miller works separately for a private investment firm which may at any time invest in companies whose products are discussed in this blog, and no disclosure of securities transactions will be made.