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During the first day of a baby’s life, the amount of data generated by humanity is equivalent to 70 times the information contained in the Library of Congress. Photo Credit: Catherine Balet “Strangers in the light” (Steidl) 2012 / from The Human Face of Big Data.
During the first day of a baby’s life, the amount of data generated by humanity is equivalent to 70 times the information contained in the Library of Congress. Photo Credit: Catherine Balet “Strangers in the light” (Steidl) 2012, from “The Human Face of Big Data.”

Popular opinion about big data is not all that rosy. Most people don’t completely understand or care about the subject too greatly, and yet they know enough to be wary of the privacy and security issues.

MacArthur Fellow Shwetak Patel, an expert featured in the documentary “The Human Face of Big Data,” knows all about those preconceived notions.

An associate professor at the University of Washington, Patel is responsible for developing a residential energy monitoring system that can track household energy consumption down to the level of individual appliances and fixtures. This sounds beneficial to both the consumer and the environment, right?

But if you’ve watched enough primetime television, you probably know that Patel’s innovations could also make your appliances hackable.

“That’s the first question I get – ‘What are the privacy and security implications of your technology?’ ‘Are you snooping on people?’” says Patel. “It’s a simple question to ask, and it’s a legitimate question, but I think it’s kind of a loaded question too.”

It’s true: Many of us who would pose these questions also love the convenience offered to them by apps, live for wearable devices that monitor their physical activities and enjoy interacting with the world on social media. We reap the benefits of tech while perhaps not being entirely mindful of the transactional costs associated with it.

University of Washington professor and MacArthur Fellow Shwetak Patel is featured in the new documentary, "The Human Face of Big Data." Photo © Peter Menzel 2012 / from The Human Face of Big Data
University of Washington professor and MacArthur Fellow Shwetak Patel is featured in the new documentary, “The Human Face of Big Data.” Photo © Peter Menzel 2012 / from The Human Face of Big Data

“If you just gave people a two-liner about Big Data, they’ll almost always lean negative,” Patel observes. “They’ll mention Snowden. They’ll mention the NSA. They’ll mention that, ‘Oh, Google is collecting all this data.’ Little do they know they’re engaging in Big Data all the time, and they’re enjoying it. But they just don’t get it, they just don’t get what the implications are.”

“The Human Face of Big Data,” airing 10 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 24, on PBS member stations (including Seattle’s KCTS), intentionally focuses first on data’s positive aspects. When the film opens with the statement that every object on Earth will be generating data at some point soon, the point is to make us think about the global good Big Data offers and how our access to the “super-visible” world that information has revealed, can improve our lives.

Sandy Smolan (Credit: The Human Face of Big Data.)
Sandy Smolan (Credit: The Human Face of Big Data.)

“When people first started talking about Big Data, they often thought the first thing that came to mind was Big Brother – that the government, corporations, everyone was sort of using Big Data to install stuff and spy on us,” says the film’s director and producer, Sandy Smolan. “Doing the research, we realized increasingly that there was all of this amazing insight, and that data was becoming this tool. That was the story that no one was telling – not to the public at large, and not in an engaging way.”

Clearly Smolan took pains to make the documentary into a beautiful viewing experience as well. Animated data visualizations transform samples concerning, say, domestic flight patterns across the United States into colorful bursts blooming from major cities on the West Coast and Eastern seaboard. In another moment, analysis of texting patterns on New Year’s Eve in Amsterdam radiates the universal joy erupting across phone networks at the stroke of midnight. It’s a highly stylized work.

But the documentary’s main purpose is to illustrate the ways in which Big Data can be used to refine our current understanding of, well, just about everything. It can grant us a deeper comprehension of human cognitive development and health, bring more balance to the justice system, empower victims of natural disasters and make governments more responsive to their citizens. It has brought us into an era in which flu outbreaks can be predicted in real-time based on Internet search requests, and phones can send local agencies information about potholes on city streets.

“As humans, we are at this turning point, and we need our tools,” Smolan says. “Technology has become an extension of our brains, and we’re at a point now where we need that to keep moving forward and to keep solving problems. We are inextricably linked to our technology. It’s how we’re going to keep moving forward as a society. But we can’t be blindly optimistic about it, either.”

Narrated by Joel McHale, the documentary touches on these subjects and others with lithe precision, making it more of a tour of Big Data’s promise as opposed to an in-depth examination of each possible use. Enough ground is covered here for one to see the merit in spinning out its topics into separate episodes, but it was important to Smolan for the film to clock in at under an hour.

“It was so unwieldy, it was tough to wrestle into shape,” Smolan recalls. “The interviews were all great…but figuring out how to corral all that into a decent narrative and keep it visual was a bear of a challenge and one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.”

Facebook visualization by Paul Butler, showing which cities have friendships between them. Butler used the data to create "a surprisingly detailed map of the world—with lines that represented not coasts or rivers or political borders, but real human relationships." Paul Butler / The Human Face of Big Data
Facebook visualization by Paul Butler, showing which cities have friendships between them. Butler used the data to create “a surprisingly detailed map of the world—with lines that represented not coasts or rivers or political borders, but real human relationships.” Paul Butler / The Human Face of Big Data

To date, the documentary has won the Jury Prize for Best Cinematography at The Boston International Film Festival and was selected to be part of the American Film Showcase. When KCTS/9 recently hosted a premiere at Seattle’s SIFF Cinema Uptown, Smolan says, the event filled the theater.

Though undeniably fascinating, “The Human Face of Big Data” still faces an uphill battle in its effort to reframe our ideas about its subject. On television, tales that speak to our fear of tech are sexier and more appealing than highlighting innovation. Shows like USA’s “Mr. Robot” and CBS’s “CSI: Cyber” create thrilling mysteries out of all-too-realistic plots concerning cybercrime. Even SyFy is getting in on the game with its upcoming scripted series “The Internet Ruined My Life.”

Many more people will be drawn to these depictions than the upbeat viewpoint of Smolan’s documentary, which leaves its examination of Big Data’s dark side until the last portion of the film. The cautionary anecdote that leads into this section? Andrew Pole’s famously controversial data mining experiment for Target — which proved that a corporation can know the most intimate details of a person’s life before even their loved ones do.

“Anything we move into, when there’s a new paradigm shift…there are other things we have to consider, and the broad implications of that shift,” Patel says. “The same thing holds true here: There are a lot of good things to be done, but it’s making some things easier that might not be good. I think we have to have a balanced outlook.”

This is the conundrum the film leaves us with: Humans have more access to knowledge about an endless variety of subjects, and more personalized, targeted information about our habits and our impact on the world, than we ever have before.

All of this information can be exploited. All of it is a data that we can act upon, whether we choose to or not.

It is either wonderful or terrible, to accept that this information proliferation is creating a planet-wide nervous system.

In few more years, Smolan says, our entire concept of “Big Data” will disappear. “It won’t be ‘big’ anymore, it’ll just be part of the fabric of society. We won’t think of it as big, we’ll think of it as, ‘Here’s another tool we have to compute and solve problems.’”

How we use that tool is completely up to each of us.

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