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.

I joined well-known photojournalist Rick Smolan and other speakers in New York City at Mission Control last month to share my thoughts on how to 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 is now tackling the subject of big data in the Human Face of Big Data project.

The 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 — as individuals and collectively as a society — to sense, measure and understand aspects of our existence in ways never before possible. Cisco is co-sponsoring this project as we believe we are entering an era of the “Internet of Everything” which will bring data as well as people, process and things together to make networked connections more relevant and valuable than ever before.

We talked with Rick about what the project is discovering.

Q:  Rick, I was wondering what originally inspired you to begin the Human Face of Big Data project?

Rick Smolan:  When I was a photographer earlier in my career, I had this idea of gathering together a tribe – of my heroes, friends and some young journalists – to focus their amazing abilities to tell stories about one country, in just one day. So we started the Day in the Life books, which became very successful.

And then I thought what if you use that same idea to do deep dives on emerging topics? So we published 24 Hours in Cyberspace and the Blue Planet Run book about the global water crisis, and also covered studies on the microprocessor and healthcare.

This last year, the phrase I kept hearing from my friends in the technology world was “big data”. At first I just thought it was one of those buzz words that was going to come and go. But the more I asked, the more interested I got.

Q: What interested you specifically about big data?

Rick Smolan:  I think the best big data description I heard from anybody was from Marisa Mayer, an old friend and now the CEO of Yahoo!, who told me that she saw this as the planet developing a nervous system. That really got me interested.

The amount of data being collected by people and machines right now is more than anything we’ve ever seen. She pointed me to Eric Schmidt at Google who said all the information generated by the human race from the dawn of humanity to 2003 was five exabytes, and that we’re now generating that amount every two days. That was the first time I understood the magnitude of it. I thought, “Now that’s interesting, but our challenge is figuring out how to show the connections back to our parents, our children and our day-to-day lives.”

Q:  How were you able to resolve that challenge?  We often think of big data as mainly affecting the businesses who are analyzing all that data?

Rick Smolan:  The ultimate goal of this project was to get people – ordinary people – not just governments and corporations, but ordinary people thinking about what it means for the world to start waking up with a sort of nervous system that’s coming to life. Who’s going to affect it and control it and who owns the data each of us is generating, that’s about us and is created by us.  I’m hoping this book will inspire those conversations.

Q:  What’s the potential for harnessing data to improve the daily life of an ordinary person?  How do you see that playing out?

Rick Smolan:  There are so many examples, but here’s one of my favorites. Right now when you visit a doctor, you’re given a one-size-fits-all prescription:  “You have an ear infection, take this antibiotic.”  The doctor doesn’t look at your particular DNA and prescribe a drug that was suited for your body and your particular version of that infection. Soon, with affordable genetic sequencing, we may be able to get personalized medications and treatments in ways we can’t even imagine today.

There’s a smartphone application called GINGER.io that can predict two days in advance when you are likely to get depressed based on patterns it builds from your behaviors in 15 different areas. This is important knowledge for people with diabetes, who have a very high correlation with depression. If you’re depressed and you’re a diabetic, you are less likely to adhere to the schedule for your medicines — which can have serious consequences. A lot of insurance companies are very motivated to help diabetics take their medications, and provide tools like this to help people.

Here’s another example. For years airport radar operators cursed the radar noise caused by birds, bats and insects. About six months ago, a group of scientists suddenly realized that we’ve been throwing away 15 years of migration pattern data about birds. One person’s garbage and noise is another person’s goldmine.  We’re seeing this over and over again where all of a sudden something that no one expected pops out of data in a way that’s delightful, profitable or life-saving.

Q: You said you’re concerned about who owns the data. What did you mean by that?

Rick Smolan:  I’ll give you an example. I met a gentleman who has a defibrillator that regulates his heartbeat. It has a wi-fi type connection that transmits data to his doctor wirelessly throughout the day. He started measuring his exercise, his diet, when he drank wine, all different aspects of his daily behavior, so that he could see if there was a correlation between when his pacemaker kicked in and how much sleep he got, how much wine he drank, how much exercise he was getting, what kind of food he was eating, and so forth. When he asked for a copy of his pacemaker data from the device’s company, they refused, saying they owned the data. He said, “Wait! This is my data, you’ve been recording my heart. I want a copy of my data.” But they refused.

So the point of the Human Face of Big Data project is to show people all the things of our lives that can be improved by using big data. It’s all in the early stages or the “caveman era” of big data. But this is exactly the time we should be thinking about what this means, who’s controlling data, who’s setting up the regulations about our data, who’s profiting from it, and what say we have as individuals in the use of the data that’s being collected.

Q: One of your projects is an interactive survey called Data Detectives, aimed at students in grades 6 through 12.  Why did you choose to target that age group, and how do you see this project helping students to understand the role of data in their lives?

Rick Smolan:  It’s like the old joke that it’s really hard to describe water to a fish because it’s part of their daily life. Kids today have access to the Internet and data as part of their daily lives. I have a 10-year-old and 12-year-old so I’m immersed in it. The other night my daughter said, “Dad, is it true that most orange cats are male?” And I said “I don’t know, let’s find out.” And so a minute later, we were looking at a video on the Internet talking about genetics and cats and why most orange cats are male. And that, of course, makes the kids more curious, and they ask the next question.

They’re living in a world where you’re curious about something and then have the instant ability to satisfy that curiosity. It’s so different than the world I grew up in.

But back to your question, I wanted to give kids in the 6 to 12 grade group a sense of discovery and the ability to compare themselves and tell their stories. We’re asking kids to answer a short series of questions but use filtering technology to show that their answer is just one answer to a question — because it depends on your perspective. For example, I’m really curious to know how first-born children answer a question compared to others, or children who have strict parents, children who grew up with a doctor as a parent, or as the youngest in the family. It gives kids the ability to drive the data themselves and navigate through the information which other kids have provided. And it’s all story-based, which I think will be delightful and fun.

Q:  After talking to so many people, conducting all this research, and living with the project for so long, how do you feel about big data now?

Rick Smolan:  At the start, I heard people predict that big data was going to be bigger than the Internet, and it seemed like the usual sort of hype and marketing to me. But now that we’re toward the end of our journey on this project, I actually think the Internet was simply a stepping stone on the way to this. For most people it seems that the Internet emerged overnight fully formed. But of course we all know it was 20 years in the making, and in a lot of ways, I think big data is the same thing. This ubiquitous global network that we call the Internet is now letting all those sensors out in the world communicate with each other. This is just the beginning.