This morning’s general session at IBM Information On Demand 2013 started with the typical bang (and, thank goodness, not a whimper), with a large video overlay up on the screen that was freakishly reminiscent of Apple’s “Big Brother” commercial, which played at the SuperBowl back in 1984 as Apple was getting ready to introduce the Macintosh.
Fortunately, in today’s kickoff, the overtones were much less forbearing, although I’m not convinced yet in the big data realm there’s nearly enough talk about the implications of the future we’re still defining, implications like security, privacy, access, and control of all this information being gathered and used for (insert organization here)’s benefit, exactly?
But let’s not get too dark, too quickly, because there will be much room for this debate moving forward.
Instead, let's move on to the lighter side of things for a moment to recap emcee data scientist Jake Porway’s view of the big data future.
Porway has worked at The New York Times and most recently has a new show on National Geographic entitled “The Numbers Game.”
He explained in his opening that he’s a data scientist, and agreed with other assessments that “data is the new oil,” explaining it was probably a more apt analogy than we give it credit for, because like crude, “you have to refine it [big data] to gain any value.”
Jake suggested he had come to IOD to lend a different perspective, “to talk to you about big data for the greater good.”
He began his discussion by explaining how primitively we used to go about landing our Friday night’s entertainment: By, heaven forbid, driving down to the -- can you believe we ever did this? -- Blockbuster to rent a movie we knew absolutely nothing about!
Think about it.
Jake asked the crowd to think about what they think about when they envision big data? Yes, we all make data-driven decision everyday now with the advent of ubiquitous social connections and search capabilities, but did you know that Kim Kardashian was an instrumental part of the CDC’s ability to predict flu outbreaks?
Heck, I was just trying to get over that rock that Kanye bought her, and imagine that could unleash a whole torrent of big data analytics that my imagination can simply not bear to figure.
But with respect to the CDC, in their “FluView” analytics capabilities, they’re now able to use expressions of social data (Twitter sentiment and the like) to project flu outbreaks two weeks ahead of their traditional forecast capabilities.
Not only does that make me ecstatic that Kim Kardashian has found a unique way to contribute to the collective benefit of society, but it makes me ponder what other grand societal challenges data analytics and visualization could bring to bear.
Which was really the point behind Porway's talk.
“We need to solve big problems beyond learning where to park our cars,” he explained, although all such problems are relative. If you’ve ever lived on and tried to park your car anywhere around the Upper West Side of Manhattan, you know that’s a big data problem still looking for a Cray Supercomputing analytics solution.
But so is bringing clean water to Africa, and to helping take better care of underprivileged children, and a host of other examples that Porway illustrated in his keynote.
“The big in ‘big data,’” he explained, “is expansive... it’s an opportunity to work with these NGOs to help them solve some of the big problems of the world.”
Which is where “DataKind” came in, to help take all these massive data sets collected by the NGOs and other public benefit organizations to turn them into “meaningful and visual” insights.
One illustrative example was the New York City Parks Department, which wondered to itself, “does cutting down a limb in the NYC forest make a sound...” The answer, of course, is possibly, but you can’t hear it over the roaring jackhammer.
What it does do is prevent 32 percent fewer emergencies in the future because those overextended limbs are no longer falling into power lines.
Another example was The World Bank, which is utilizing visual data overlays to help the organization make smarter choices about where to applied limited resources to hunger prevention. Having a map to better understand the hunger “hot zones” helps makes those difficult decisions a little easier to stomach.
So this is where the audience came in, Porway explained. An audience of 20+K data and information management geeks gathered in the Mandalay Bay Arena are his tribe, and he wanted them to help, he was calling them to data arms.
“You are superheroes with extraordinary capabilities to change the world,” Jake explained, “to use data to make the world a better place.”
So he challenged them: “What kind of world do you want to see?” The data is out there, he explained, but the only real question is was this audience of the Data Kind.
“How are you going to use it to transform you industry and your world?”