How do you take a photograph of big data?

How do you take a photograph of big data?

Summary: Photographer Rick Smolan, one of the project leads aiming to visualize big data, explains how seals, taxis and rain, and the human nervous system helped him to give analytics a "human face".


Big data is not hype and its importance and impact will be more far-reaching than the Internet, says an American journalist tackling the subject in a new photobook.

Rick Smolan who is working on "The Human Face of Big Data" project, said in an interview with ZDNet on Friday: "I really think that [big data] is going to change everything about every way that we behave." He is noted for his "Day in the Life" photography series and will be putting a "human face" to big data in a photobook set to launch in November.

"[Visualizing big data] is much more difficult because it's not people sitting in front of computers. It's got to be something that brings the story to life in a very compelling way," he said.

"Everyone I talked to had a different definition of big data," said Smolan. He added that people said it was "more data sitting on a computer", while someone else said, "no, it's not about the size of data but data collected by different organizations for different reasons and overlapping them to extract meaning".

Instead of portraying technology, Smolan said the book will be nothing about "servers or storage". "It's about taking care of older people and our children...It's about using big data to improve the sport of baseball. It's about marriage and relationships," he said.

What he felt was the best analogy for big data was "watching the planet develop a nervous system". "The idea that all of us walking around with our smartphone, GPS devices and RFID tags and becoming human sensors," he said.

Big data's impact will greater than the Internet, Smolan said. "[Big data gives the] ability to measure things in real time--not just doing a random sampling but have a 24-7 sensor of what's going on," he said.

"You have people arguing that global warming is not real. But if you can show it's real scientifically in real time, you can stop the argument right there," he said.

In one of the photo essays, a group of seals wear trackers which will plot data of the ocean and send the terabytes of data back to the scientists, "because the sea is a mystery".

Elephant seal
Copyright of Chris Oosthuizen from "The Human Face of Big Data"

In another project, a researcher in Singapore found out that taxi drivers did not like to pick up passengers during rain--by overlapping weather patterns and GPS locations of taxis. In follow up interviews with taxi drivers, the researcher found out that taxi drivers were required to pay a bond if their taxi was involved in an accident which is why the drivers do not like to be out in the rain. Smolan said the taxi rental company has been notified of this and is considering waiving the bond.

Putting a human face to big data
Smolan said a hundred journalists were involved in taking photographs and writing for "The Human Face of Big Data" photobook. It is set to launch in November, and will be sent to "influential" people all over the world at launch.

"We're not trying to sell the book. The whole point is to get people talking about [big data]," he said.

The photojournalist added that it was more difficult trying to portray big data in photographs than it was with his previous "The Day in the Life" projects which were structured to present photographs from day to night.

Besides the launch of the photobook on Nov. 20, there is also a series of event surrounding the project. Smolan said a smartphone app will be available on Sep. 25 to allow users around the world to share and compare their lives. A day's worth of data will be collected anonymously and be used by scientists as a snapshot of the world during that period, he added. The analyzed data will be released on Oct. 2 at "Mission Control" events in New York City London and Singapore.

According to Smolan, "The Human Face of Big Data" project is underwritten by EMC. Fedex is sponsoring the delivery of the photobook to influential persons in the world while Cisco also came onboard as sponsor. However, he stressed that the sponsors have no editorial input.

Topics: Big Data, Data Centers, Data Management, Networking, TechLines

Liau Yun Qing

About Liau Yun Qing

The only journalist in the team without a Western name, Yun Qing hails from the mountainy Malaysian state, Sabah. She currently covers the hardware and networking beats, as well as everything else that falls into her lap, at ZDNet Asia. Her RSS feed includes tech news sites and most of the Cheezburger network. She is also a cheapskate masquerading as a group-buying addict.

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  • As an amateur photographer, I would very much like to see this book.

    Is distribution going to be restricted to "influential people" (I'm afraid I don't qualify ;>) or will it be for sale to the general public?
  • Human Face of Big Data Project

    Oh, don't ever underestimate your influence...

    That said, the book will indeed be publicly available. There's more to the project than the book, too -there will be an iPad app, there's a downloadable app, there's a project engaging students from all over the world. Check out for specifics!
  • At Hasselblad, we'd love to see that book and to follow the discussion.

    As manufacturers of high-end digital cameras that are currently being used for gathering data in every photographic discipline, including "Big Data" applications such as photogrammetry, archival photography and heritage preservation, we at Hasselblad would love to see this book. We'd also be very interested in following this discussion and in helping out wherever a manufacturer's input might be of interest.
    Please do let me know how where we can grab a copy and how we might be able to contribute.