As more devices, people and things become connected to the Internet, an unprecedented amount of data will be generated: data which can become a powerful tool for solving some of the greatest challenges facing our planet.

Carlos Dominguez and photojournalist Rick Smolan
Carlos Dominguez and photojournalist Rick Smolan

I spoke with well-known photojournalist Rick Smolan about how we can turn data into wisdom, and the importance of capturing data in real time. Rick has worked at Time, Life and National Geographic and is the creator of the popular Day in the Life book series. In his most ambitious project to date, he tackled the subject of big data in the Human Face of Big Data project.

I talked with Rick about what his project is discovering, and the first part of our conversation was published in the blog Is there a human face behind big data?

Cisco co-sponsored the project because we believe we’re entering an era of the “Internet of Everything” which will bring data as well as people, processes and things together to make networked connections more relevant and valuable than ever before.

In today’s blog, we continue the conversation by focusing on how big data can improve our communities and the world.

Q:  Rick, your project’s premise is that real-time visualization of data streaming in from satellites, billions of sensors, RFID tags, GPS-enabled cameras and smart phones, is beginning to enable us to sense, measure and understand aspects of our existence in ways never possible.  Your recently published book The Human Face of Big Data has some wonderful examples on harnessing data to improve the world – do you have a favorite?   

Rick Smolan:  There are so many stories we found around the world, once we started searching. For example, when the earthquake hit in Japan last year, it was very devastating, but there’s a little-known fact:  every factory in Japan and every bullet train stopped 43 seconds before the earthquake hit because of Japan’s early warning system. They put that in place to mitigate effects. There are two different kinds of waves that occur in an earthquake and one is a low vibration wave that comes literally seconds before the damaging earthquake shock wave. Japan spent 15 years and half a billion dollars putting this early earthquake warning system in place, and it works. Even though the devastation was so awful – you can just imagine how much worse it could have been for people if they’d been on a moving bullet train when the tracks were shifted by the earthquake.

Then I discovered that a group of entrepreneurs in Palo Alto have invented something called Quake Catcher, which uses the accelerometer in your laptop. It’s designed to sense if your laptop is falling off a table onto the floor, and it pulls the head off the platter. They used the same accelerometer with their program so that before people go to bed at night, all over the planet now, they fire up Quake Catcher.

So this is a free crowd-sourced ubiquitous early earthquake warning system. No financial investment, no financial remunerations, people helping other people by using their always-on internet connection with their always-on laptops while they’re asleep to help protect their neighbors. It’s a wonderful example of people using technology and data in new ways never dreamed of before.

Q:  What about all the data being collected from satellites? 

Rick Smolan:  Satellites are a huge source of data. There’s a company, A-Where, that uses data from satellite scans to detect mosquito eggs that are breeding on bodies of water. The idea of using a satellite to find mosquito eggs is sort of whacky and delightful. And then there’s the human impact:  instead of spraying DDT over hundreds of thousands of miles to kill mosquitoes, you can target just those areas with the mosquito eggs. In those places where malaria is a serious problem, using satellites to deal with mosquitoes to solve a health problem is unexpected, but it’s a terrific use of existing data.

Q:  Cisco has recently begun talking about the Internet of Everything – connecting the unconnected to the Internet and imagining the potential.  You’ve had a first-hand look at the beginnings of this new era. 

Rick Smolan:  Yes, this ubiquitous global network we call the Internet is now letting sensors and devices and people communicate with each other, often in real-time. You could consider that the planet is developing a nervous system. Devices are starting to generate more data than we are, and they’re beginning to share it. You also have algorithms that are writing algorithms. And it makes you wonder who’s going to be driving this big data train going forward?

Q:  Your book contains examples where sophisticated technology can create low-tech solutions for rural or developing areas. Was that a continuing theme you discovered?  

Yes, and in fact one of the stories that I found really inspiring concerns Nigeria, which has the highest resurgence of polio in the world. The Gates Foundation is making a concerted effort to try to eradicate polio by making sure everybody in the country gets inoculated. But for many reasons, religious and societal, it’s been very hard to get inoculation workers out to the right parts of the country and reach the people who need the inoculations desperately.

The other problem they discovered very recently is that, looking at satellite maps of Nigeria, they found villages that did not exist on any government maps, and nobody even knew these people were there. Nigerian maps were not current because villages come into being and grow faster than they can be tracked. Satellite imagery showed huts and paths to indicate there were whole villages that nobody knew existed.

They gave out thousands of GPS-enabled cell phones to the inoculation workers, who are able now to go house-to-house and hut-to-hut in both known and previously unknown villages, making sure that every single person in Nigeria gets inoculated. We sent a photographer to accompany the inoculation workers for a week, and the pictures are just fantastic.

Q:  Do you foresee that big data will be able to address emerging issues that are huge and global in nature such as the water crisis or climate change or what happens if the polar ice caps melt?   

Rick Smolan:  There’s so much still to learn, and we’re gathering data in new ways all the time, so yes, there’s great potential. For example, Australian scientists are putting sensors and transmitters devices on large animals like elephant seals, and they planted 60 transponders all over the Pacific Ocean. When the seals get close to a transponder, the device transfers all the data the seals collected about ocean currents, migration patterns, and ocean topology, which is then transmitted to a satellite. So sea creatures are actually helping us map the oceans.

Q:  What do you find most exciting when you consider the future?

Rick Smolan:  We’re just starting to see the possibilities – it’s very exciting because there is so much potential-  it’s the triangulation of data– taking data from one source and overlapping it with many other sources to discover new patterns emerging that will enable us to make amazing discoveries. And we’re doing this globally and collaboratively.

To hear more about how Data is changing the world, join me for an exclusive discussion with Rick Smolan on Tuesday, June 4th. The live Webcast, Evolution of Data: A conversation with author Rick Smolan, will kick off at 9:30 am Pacific Time/12:30 pm Eastern Time.  Click here to register.