Big Data still needs eye candy: PBS documentary delivers


Big Data. These two innocuous words may not mean much to some, but almost everyone in this world is leaving a digital footprint that contributes to this burgeoning collection of data.

To help people understand what Big Data is and how it plays a role in people’s lives, a unique film collaboration between the Smolan Brothers will be airing on February 24, 2016 on PBS at 10PM ET.

The award-winning film, The Human Face of Big Data, is a one hour documentary that examines the promises and perils of this unstoppable force that is now invisibly sweeping through our lives and is expected to have an impact on humanity and civilization 1,000 times greater than the internet itself.

The documentary is narrated by actor Joel McHale and features compelling human stories, captivating visuals and in-depth interviews with dozens of pioneering scientists, entrepreneurs, futurists and experts to illustrate powerful new data-driven tools, which have the potential to address some of humanity’s biggest challenges, including health, hunger, pollution, security and disaster response.

The film was directed and produced by award-winning filmmaker Sandy Smolan (“Rachel River,” “The Click Effect”) and based on the best-selling book of the same name by executive producer Rick Smolan, photojournalist and creator of the epic Day in the Life series.

“We did this project with the intention of sparking a global conversation, not just about Big Data, but also the fundamental human aspects of data—and who owns the data that each of us generates,” said director Sandy Smolan. “Currently, corporations and governments think the most about the power of technology, rather than ordinary individuals whose lives will all be affected by the decisions being made now.”

The Human Face of Big Data takes viewers on a journey on how data permeates every aspect of our lives, and how it transforms people and society in both minute and monumental ways. State-of-the-art animations and graphics were used to illustrate information streaming in from satellites, billions of sensors and GPS-enabled cameras, as well as smartphones, to be able to measure and analyze vast quantities of raw information. The real-time visualization uncovers patterns underlying complex systems, conveying our existence in ways previously unimaginable.  

“Big Data is giving us a brand new way to see things; it’s like a new kind of microscope,” said Rick Smolan, executive producer. “Imagine that the entire human race has been looking through one eye for all of our existence and now, suddenly, scientists are able to give us the ability to open up a second eye or a thousand eyes, giving us a new dimension, an entirely new way to see with depth and perspective, a form of 3D vision enabling us to see things right in front of us that we could never perceive before.”

The Human Face of Big Data will be airing tomorrow February 24, 2016 on PBS at 10PM ET. Watch the trailer below.

How Big Data has impacted the world since 2012

So what’s changed in the world between the book’s publishing in 2012 and the film’s PBS debut?

Data mining

In June 2013, Edward Snowden, a former National Security Agency contractor revealed in an interview how the government has been spying on people using a warrantless program called PRISM. The program allows the NSA and the Federal Bureau of Investigation access huge amounts of data from the world’s largest internet companies that are capable of “extracting audio, video, photos, emails documents and connection logs” to be able to create a picture of an individual’s activities and contacts over time.

Based on evidence presented by Snowden, it was revealed that PRISM is a massive data mining program used by the NSA, employing a special algorithm to see patterns that may indicate an individual’s involvement in terrorism. Though the intention was in good faith, the act was too far reaching and violates an individual’s right to privacy. To this day, Snowden is still in hiding, but stated that he is willing to return to the U.S. if he is guaranteed a fair trial.

The end of Moore’s law

Moore’s law – the observation that the number of transistors in processors double every two years. Nearly six decades later, the law has reached a limit. Gordon Moore, the man behind Moore’s Law said in an interview in 2015 that he could see Moore’s law dying in the next decade or so because of physical limitations. Some transistors are already at the atomic level, dealing with heat in a very small piece of technology is getting more problematic.

“We’re very close to the atomic limitation now. We take advantage of all the speed we can get, but the velocity of light limits performance. These are fundamentals I don’t see how we [will] ever get around. And in the next couple of generations, we’re right up against them,” Moore stated.

Computers learning like humans

Researchers, which includes M.I.T. professor Joshua Tenenbaum and Ruslan Salakhutdinov, a professor of computer science at the University of Toronto, may have discovered a new machine learning algorithm that will allow computer programs “learn” things the way humans do using visual learning. It is based on statistical probabilities and allows computers to perform relatively simple tasks like recognizing, identifying, and copying handwritten characters from various types of alphabets.

Consumers Target-ed

With vast amount of data comes vast amount of wealth, and that is true especially when you you’re a retailer handling people’s credit card information, address, phone number, and other very sensitive data. Target Corp. was hit by hackers on Black Friday 2013 compromising 40 million of its customers.

Target had to pay card issuers including MasterCard, Inc. and Visa, Inc. for damages incurred because of the breach. The payout amounted to more than $300 million, but despite this very expensive bill, Target may not have learned its lesson. In December 2015, Avast Software s.r.o. issued a security alert that warns of a vulnerability in Target’s wish list app, which can be exploited to pull users’ details without so much as having to compromise their mobile devices.

Great weather today

IBM acquired  The Weather Company’s business-to-business, mobile and cloud-based web properties. Though it may seem odd as to why Big Blue would be interested in weather data, it’s not just about forecasting rainy days. Inhi Cho Suh, VP of strategy and business development of IBM Analytics, explains that environmental conditions account for almost a half a trillion of economic loss on an annual basis just in the U.S. and by being able to use weather data, along with data analytics, its clients can make better business decisions.

Photo by netzkobold