Rick Smolan and Jennifer Erwitt, co-founders of Against All Odds Productions, are well-known for creating the ambitious “Day in the Life” book series.
Representing the talents of hundreds of the world’s leading photographers, writers and graphic designers, these books feature the big and small events taking place in a particular country over a 24-hour period.
Today the team’s projects are more topical, tackling emerging issues from the Internet to the water crisis. Most recently they turned their artistic, technical and logistical expertise to capturing the personal stories and images behind the big data revolution. The impetus for this latest endeavor was the astounding amount of data being collected by people and machines.
In their book “The Human Face of Big Data,” Smolan and Erwitt set out to transform the collection, analysis and interpretation of today’s accumulation of raw information into more than just measurement.
Co-sponsored by companies including EMC, SAP and Cisco, the project explored how data from satellites, sensors, RFID tags, GPS-enabled cameras, smartphones and other technologies not only affect life today but might help humanity solve its biggest challenges in the future. The book put a face on the facts, allowing readers to better understand the many facets of our lives and envision the impact of our existence in surprising new ways.
In an interview published online by Huffington Post, Smolan said, “The ability to collect, analyze, triangulate and visualize vast amounts of data in real time is something the human race has never had before. … Some of the experts we interviewed in the course of putting the project together have gone so far as to describe this as being akin to the planet suddenly developing a nervous system. We thought this would be the perfect time to spark a thoughtful global conversation about a set of emerging technologies that have the potential to have a bigger impact on civilization than the Internet.”
That impact, according to the experts, is already sweeping through business, academia, government, health care and everyday life. It’s enabling us to conserve natural resources, capture global markets, improve safety, enhance health outcomes and map our genes. And it’s likely we’ve only scratched the surface. As Smolan put it, “We’re just starting to see the possibilities. There is so much potential in the triangulation of data — taking data from one source and overlapping it with many other sources — to discover new patterns emerging that will enable us to make amazing discoveries.”
Big data certainly has been a hot topic in learning circles of late. While we are in the early stages of considering all the possibilities for big data in workforce development, we’re already capturing vast amounts of data, from enrollment and completion statistics to competency assessments and data about employee productivity, performance and career progression. Up to now, most learning-centric efforts to harness the power of big data have focused on cost justification or measuring the value and correlated impact of various development programs on business performance.
But we need to use the potential of all this information to help us put a human face on learning, too. Public education is already heading in this direction with big data analytics. In 2012, the U.S. Education Department targeted $25 million in specially earmarked big data funds toward efforts to understand how students learn at an individual level to improve educational outcomes.
The corporate world owes its learners no less. This is the perfect time to spark a conversation about the individual effect of workforce development and how we can use technology, data and new kinds of analytics to improve its efficacy for each distinct learner and positively influence the arc of his or her career trajectory. By enabling a clearer understanding of both the “who” and the “how” of learning and development, big data can do so much more than just help create a healthier bottom line. It can make a human difference.