Lots of words are zooming around the Internet and beyond -- including, of course, the words I'm writing now. But what happens when they're harvested by others and used for good, for bad or just for weird things? On Wednesday (Feb, 24), PBS' "The Human Face of Big Data" ponders thats; here's the story I sent to papers:
By Mike Hughes
Floating around the
atmosphere, it seems, are great globs of information about most of
This is harvested by
strangers – businesses and governments and more – a new PBS film
says. It's used for good or bad or in-between. Consider the:
-- Bad. “A young
programmer at a bank wrote an algorithm (that included) if you had
anything in yout social history that you listened to rap music,”
said Rick Smolan, the “Human Face of Big Data” writer-producer.
“If you did, his algorithm would lower your ability to get a loan.”
-- Good. “We
accept the fact that drugs only work in about 40 percent of the
people who take them,” said Linda Avey, who runs a high-tech
company. Now the odds can be improved with genetic information.
“We'll be able to target medications to the people they actually
-- Or merely
strange, as one example points out in the “Big Data” film.
An irate customer
confronted a store manager. Why was Target suddenly sending coupons
for baby things to his house? Was it implying that his 17-year-old
daughter was pregnant?
The confused manager
apologized ... and called a few days later to apologize anew. Never
mind, the guy said sheepishly ... his daughter had just told him
it seems, can sense such things even with small changes in buying
habits. Someone who shifts to an unscented product, for instance, may
be pregnant. So coupons are sent.
That's part of the
information harvest that comes from social-media, Internet searches,
shopping habits and more. “If you live in a major city, you're
expected to use as much data in a single day as your 15th-century
ancestors encountered in their entire lifetime,” said Sandy
Smolan,who directed “Big Data.”
But who owns that
data? Rick Smolan (Sandy's brother) points to the example of Hugh
Campos, a scientist who has a pacemaker. A fitness buff, he decided
to study the information it generates, to see what it says about his
sleep, exercise and more; he asked the pacemaker company for a data
“There is this
long pause on the phone,” Rick Smolan said, “and the woman says,
'Well, I'm sorry sir, but that's our proprietary data.'
“He said, 'No, no,
no. This is my heart; I created the data. I want a copy of it.' So
he's suing them.”
In the right hands,
Avey said, information is a huge plus. She went from drug-company
work to starting tech firms (23andMe and Curious, Inc.) aimed at
helping people use their own information. “There are things that
you can do ... if you have a higher risk for things like Type II
And in the wrong?
Susan Karlin, a tech journalist, recalls interviewing Jonathan Nolan
about “Person of Interest,” his CBS series that included an
all-knowing computer. Two years later, Edward Snowden revealed how
much the government already knows. “Everythingthat he said sound
paranoid in the story, but turned out to be very prophetic.”
Still, all of that
data can also be helpful. Just by checking Internet searches, the
film says, the Centers for Disease Control can get a two-week jump on
regional flu outbreaks.
That's not limited
to high-tech countries, the film says. In Kenya, mobile phones help
spot malaria outbreaks. In Haiti, they located people trapped by an
earthquake. In Tunisia, they sparked a revolution.
And in the U.S.?
Uses can range from major health issues to Boston potholes.
Our GPS devices,
Rick Smolan said, send a signal if they're bumped. “If 40 people
bounce in the same place, it tells the city there must be a pothole
there, so someone goes and fixes it.”
-- “The Human Face
of Big Data,” 10 p.m. Wednesday, PBS (check local listings)
-- Also a book
(2012, Against All Odds Productions) by Rick Smolan and Jennifer