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The Human Face of Big Data - Rick Smolan photography project

A QnA with Rick Smolan, one of the creators of The Human Face of Big Data, a look at what all the information in the world says about us.

Fortune, Ryan Bradley, Sep 13, 2012

The Human Face of Big Data

FORTUNE -- A photographer for Time, Life, and National Geographic, Rick Smolan says he relishes taking on the impossible. Decades ago he decided to try and capture life on the Australian continent in a day -- so he sent dozens of photographers into the field for 24 hours, collecting their work into a single book and spawning the Day in the Life series. His latest project, The Human Face of Big Data, uses photographs, infographics, and even an app to attempt to both tell the story of how we use this astonishing glut of data and, for one day -- October 2nd -- take the temperature of humanity. Fortune spoke to Smolan about this project, excerpted in our latest issue.

How did you decide this -- Big Data -- was the project for you?

One of the nice things about living in Silicon Valley is that I end up at all these conferences and things, and I get to listen in on the zeitgeist. It was cyberspace once. About a year ago, Big Data was it. It was like one of those phrases you attached to things, and suddenly they glow.

blue lines across Midtown Manhattan
The web of blue lines across Midtown Manhattan is the path of bike-riding pizza deliverymen on a Friday night.

In trying to understand it, were you thinking of how you'd structure the book?

Oh yes. Visually, the pictures fell into three categories. Some are just a cool story, but we had to send a photographer out to bring the story to life. There's a story about tracking all the energy consumption in your house. How do you photograph a gadget in a new, and not boring, way? You have to get away from people sitting in front of a computer. You have to get a look at the digital signature.
Then there were pictures that were symbolic. You look at the pictures, the pictures are breathtaking, and they provide a filter for the narrative of the book. Finally, some of the pictures weren't photographs at all, but infographics: How does Google use information?

Now, the project doesn't end with the book -- there's an app, a participatory element. Was that in the plan all along?

I love the idea of adding a new technology component to our books. My company, Against All Odds Productions, has done print on demand, we were the first to do a book with a CD-ROM in the early 1990s, we do custom covers. It's always fun to do something new. I love this idea of collaborative crowdsourcing. We hope the app will be fun and compelling. It's a week of collection. We have three mission control centers in Singapore, London, and New York City. Throughout the day, on October 2nd, we'll have these TED-like talks from people at companies such as 23 and Me, Major League Baseball, FedEx (FDX), and real data scientists. We want to hear all about what everyone's doing with data.

Read more.

Fortune magazine excerpt from The Human Face of Big Data.

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