This past week featured a worldwide experiment conducted via a mobile app: The Human Face of Big Data. On September 26, 2012, Against All Odds Productions launched a smartphone and tablet app. With it, users could map their daily footprint through GPS, share a picture of what brings them luck, and get a glimpse into the one thing people want to experience during their lifetime. Why was this done?
Rick Smolan believes in the concept of “big data”, the idea that it is possible to analytically process massive amounts of data in order to derive insights into problems facing the world. Without most people even realizing it, your smartphone is collecting a lot of data on a daily basis. Where you have been. Who you have been calling. What businesses do you like. Most of this data is used for marketing or discarded after temporary usage by your apps. But what if this data could be harnessed?
The Human Face of Big Data app allows volunteers to provide demographic information through a series of questions. Then, through the rest of the week, the smartphone’s sensors were keeping a log of how far people traveled, how fast, and where they were going. While this may mostly be interesting to social scientists, Smolan is doing this to show just how much information people are already sharing passively. He believes that big data will have a more transforming effect than the internet itself.
What type of problems can big data help solve? The Integrated Marine Observing System (IMOS) collects, integrates, and shares terabytes of data about animal migration, ocean salinity, temperature, currents, and carbon storage from a variety of sources. MacArthur Fellow Shwetak Patel found through analyzing home sensors that video recorders eat up 11 percent of household power. Researchers John Guttag and Collin Stultz analyzed discarded EKG data in order to improve today’s risk-screening techniques, which miss identifying about 70 percent of patients likely to have a repeat heart attack. These are just some of the examples Smolan’s team has listed on their website.
So it’s now a day after this experiment has finished and what do we find? Besides donating $50,000 to charity:water this project provides a live view of its results through Mission Control. During this past week, app users were able to see the early/current results every time a question was answered. I downloaded the app early on so I saw the results when there was less than 100,000 questions answered. Unfortunately, I got the feeling the results would be skewed when the app said that over half responded to the question “Which fits closest to what you think will happen when you die?” with “Nothing. Game over.”
Even Mission Control noted this oddity: “Users of up-to-date Android phones are twice as likely to believe in no life after death or to believe in reincarnation than the general population. Nerds: atheists and Hindus?”
Considering that atheists probably represent less than 10 percent of the worldwide population, this leads me to believe many of the other answers might stray from the norm. For example, only 32 percent said they were married while 23 percent answered “Cohabitating” and 42 percent were single. Contrast this with the results of Pew Research which says 51 percent of those 18 and older are married.
The app asked people the serious question, “What do you want to do before you die?” Apparently, they have the universe on the mind since the top answer was “go to mars,” which was closely followed by “go into space.”
There were some funny answers. For example, two percent said, “I speak zero languages frequently.” Perhaps some coders speaking half of binary? The number one and two pictures representing what people consider lucky was a glass of Irish beer.
All in all, The Human Face Of Big Data seems like a good idea that had a flawed implementation. With more advertising, I think the data sampling would be more representative of the world at large. As it was I didn’t hear about it until it’d already started. I also heard of people experiencing bugs with the app, which is pretty bad considering it was only going to be in service for a week. Still, I’m hoping their efforts showcase how big data can potentially transform our world.