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As usual, PBS has proven it has its finger on the pulse of America with relevant documentary-style journalism. Gracing the screen are experts in a variety of fields, from Jer Thorp (a New York Times data artist) to Jack Dorsey (the co-founder of Twitter and founder of Square), weighing in on the ways our world is changing thanks to big data.

Facebook visualization

By setting its sights on the data trail following us everywhere we go, The Human Face of Big Data seeks to depict just how complex, useful, beautiful, and scary this always-evolving maelstrom of online metrics is. And, as you might expect, the conclusions that PBS draws are mixed. In the words of Jay Walker, the chairman and curator of TEDMED, “Every powerful tool has a dark side––every last one. Anything that’s going to change the world, by definition, has to be able to change it for the worse as much as for the better. It doesn’t work one way without the other.”

Project ArtemisTake, for instance, the revolution that big data is having in our everyday health. Public health analysts can track the Google searches that people in a given city or region are making. As Aaron Koblin, the Creative Director at Google, points out, sometimes we don’t know the relevance of huge swaths of big data until experts begin to analyze the data sets. This is when turning the tables (i.e., searching Google searches) can be particularly helpful. When Google users’ searches for “flu treatments” and “flu symptoms” begin to increase as the weather gets colder, public health officials can get real-time data and predict where the next big influenza outbreak will likely be, says journalist Rick Smolan.

At the same time, though, says Steven Downs with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, when public health officials predict that this season will be especially bad for the flu, people go into panic mode and begin searching Google at the earliest sign or symptom, which may or may not be the actual flu. In this way, big data can lead to a lot of inaccurate speculation and even false positives.

Data Results

As much as we like to believe that the data constituting our online lives offers an objective reflection of our actual lives, The Human Face of Big Data reveals one fact above all others: in the Information Age, we live in a time that can be either terrifying or thrilling. It all depends on how you massage the data. Deb Roy with Blue Fin Labs says that big data allows us to discover so many patterns within that data—patterns that can give us insights into ourselves, both as individuals and as a species. 

This documentary explores some of the cutting edge ways that researchers in various jobs, from information technology to investigative reporting, are using big data to plunge ever deeper into their respective fields of inquiry. Deb Roy, for instance, wanted to look at the phenomenon of language acquisition in babies, so he set up cameras all throughout his house while his infant grew into a toddler. For two years, the child’s every move was tracked, and this included the baby’s movement through the various early stages of language, from the preverbal, to babbling, to verbal. 

Big CityBut what exactly do these cameras accomplish, aside from convincing the parents’ friends that they’re super creepy? These cameras can allow the parents/researchers to build and better understand the “gestation period of word births” as the child learns the language that will shape the world around him. These “wordscapes” are the physical contexts of where each word is born, where in the house and in what situation. The idea is that in analyzing the data, you might be able to predict what sorts of words are most likely to be learned in a given situation. One conclusion gleaned from their research is that learning a word is (or at least seems to be) less about repetition, and more about the context in which it is learned.

Big data has many other uses beyond linguistics. Data can also be used in predictive and preventative medicine, which may allow us to better treat premature babies and understand the odds of being diagnosed with cancer before any signs appear.
Mapping Gentic Profiles
Speaking of cancer, a lot of this has to do with looking at personal genomes and mapping genetic profiles, a consumer revolution that has really been picking up steam in recent years. This revolution has been spurred in large part by Linda Avey, the founder of “23andMe,” who is also in the documentary. Both she and John Battelle of Federated Media argue that mapping one’s own genome can be especially helpful when trying to determine what diseases a person is more or less likely to develop over her lifetime. One example is breast cancer. If you know you have a 100-percent chance of developing a certain kind of cancer, you suddenly have a much greater reason to pursue aggressive treatment (such as a mastectomy) than if the chances were merely 50-50.

HFOBD InfantThus, one of the greatest powers that big data gives us is the power of prediction. We may, for instance, one day begin to see predictive models of healthcare instead of disease treatment. Therefore, instead of doctors focusing on curing illnesses, we might see more doctors offering advice on how to prevent them.

As Rick Smolan points out, the Internet is only the beginning. One way of looking at it is that Big Brother has been born out of big data. Tim O'Reilly, a futurist, points out that “a global brain” is developing. This global brain is actively listening in on us—which can be both a good and a bad thing, says Jennifer Pahlka with Code for America. But how, exactly, can the fact that our technology is “listening in on us” be a good thing?

Apps offer a great example of how responsive our technological world is quickly becoming. By design, apps connect with each other and create new, intuitive ways of mapping our world. And, of course, sometimes this digital mapping process literally creates maps. Consider the way that a GPS can predict which routes are the best at any given time, getting us through rush hour as quickly as possible. Now think about technology responding back to you, predicting which problems in the city need to be addressed now. When this happens, says Jennifer Pahlka, the city becomes more like a living organism, just like the body.

Road MappingTo drive the point home, Marc Goodman, an advisor at Global Security, explains how Boston has a new smartphone app that “uses the accelerometer in your phone” to document real-time roadway conditions as you’re driving. “So,” Goodman explains, “if you’re driving through the streets of South Boston and suddenly there’s a big dip in the street, the phone realizes it, so anybody in the city of Boston [running] that app is . . . feeding real-time data on the quality of the roads to the city of Boston.”

Besides making our morning and afternoon commutes more pleasant, why would having a map of real-time road conditions be so important? “Then you start to feel that your city is a responsive organism, just like your body puts your blood where it needs it,” says Jennifer Pahlka. She also points out that when you know your city better—and when your city knows you better—this can be beneficial in many other ways. Knowing which sections of the city should keep their street lights on at night can help decrease crime, she says.
The phenomenon of big data has huge implications for today’s world in many ways. It can help us predict disasters, prevent and cure diseases, and challenge dictators.

However, data hacks are a huge problem––and not just data hacks. The way companies track you can be nefarious. Think of Target’s data breach in late 2013, or the controversy in 2012 in which it was revealed that Target actually had a sophisticated system for tracking pregnant customers.Tracks Customers

Charles Ouhigg of The New York Times tells a humorous anecdote in which a furious Target customer came into his local store demanding to speak with the manager. He wanted the manager to tell him why the store had suddenly started sending his eighteen-year-old daughter coupons and advertisements for baby and pregnancy products. He wanted the mailings to stop.

A few days later, when the manager, still feeling ashamed, called the man once again to apologize, the father said he was the one who owed the manager an apology. His daughter was, in fact, pregnant.

In case you don’t remember this kerfuffle from a few years ago, you may be wondering, How exactly did this happen? A Target stats guru named Andrew Pole had researched the shopping trends of pregnant women, and by tracking which products flew off the shelves, he successfully developed metrics that analyzed shopping patterns to predict which customers were pregnant.

 Thriving Individuals and Institutions 

Obviously, as some individuals and institutions thrive in our newly interconnected world, others will be victimized. One problem with the documentary is that it explores the good side of big data in such depth that it hardly mentions how stressful, terrifying, incapacitating, and imprisoning our always-connected world can be. For a documentary that starts out by alluding to powers that can be both productive and destructive, and then shows a mushroom cloud to drive the point home, more focus on the potential downsides of big data would have been appropriate.

By paying more attention to the negaConnected to Imprisioningtives of big data, The Human Face might have been more balanced, and less of a project unequivocally praising the magic and wonders of our Information Age.

There is, though, one statement upon which pretty much everyone agrees: Whether you think the phenomenon of big data that we are seeing right now is intrusive, revolutionary, or overwhelming (or all of the above), this is just the beginning.

The Human Face of Big Data is a somewhat-ominous but mostly optimistic look, at the effects that big data has had, and will have, on our lives!

The Human Face of Big Data will premiere on PBS on Wednesday, February 24, 2016, at 10:00 pm et. Check local listings! / Issue 177 - September 2018
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