Big data in relation to surveillance has long been a mainstay of popular culture, with TV shows like Person of Interest and Mr Robot portraying it as a tool easily misappropriated for shady government agencies to control the masses. The Edward Snowden leaks and subsequent controversy around government attempts to collect personal information has further ensured that the majority of people only really know Big Data as something used to spy on them.
This is slowly starting to change, as exhibitions like Big Bang Data at Somerset House in London and the recent PBS documentary, The Human Face of Big Data, try and show the other side of the coin. The Big Bang Data exhibition, for example, set out to argue that data is the driving cultural force of this epoch, and could either help us create a society that is ‘fairer, more stable and efficient, or be ‘wielded as a means of unprecedented mass surveillance and commodification’. These have gone some way to introducing mainstream audiences to the more beneficial aspects of Big Data, hopefully helping to change public perceptions while still urging caution around how society adapts to its implementation - something that is going to be even more necessary as Big Data further entrenches itself into our everyday lives.
The Human Face of Big Data is a one-hour documentary film, sponsored by a number of other tech companies, that debuted on PBS in February. It is based, in part, on the book of the same name that came out in 2012, although Rick Smolan, co-author and driving force behind the book, says the movie, directed by his brother Sandy Smolan, presents new examples of big data in action in fields such as health care and government and only actually refers to about 20% of the book's content.
The film is highly stylized, showing a variety of ways that data can be used to visualize and reveal insights about public life, with animated data visualizations showing domestic flight paths across the United States as colorful bursts blooming from major cities on the West Coast and Eastern seaboard. Such visualizations show that data can not only entertain us, but tell us something we didn’t previously know about ourselves. It also features commentary from a number of industry leaders, including Jack Dorsey, the founder of Twitter and Square, Aaron Koblin, the co-founder and CTO of Verse, and MIT professor Deb Roy.
Sandy Smolan noted, ‘Our goal with this project was to spark a global conversation about the human aspects of big data — and how it is changing our lives for better and worse.’
This is shown in a number of case studies. In another section of the film, data reveals some surprising facts about the criminal justice system, with two researchers, Laura Kurgan of Columbia University and Eric Cadora of the Justice Mapping Center, using geographical information systems (GIS) to visualize incarceration patterns for residents of Brooklyn.
Big data has long been seen a data problem for IT, but people are increasingly realizing it is a huge business opportunity rather than simply a technology ‘challenge.’ The conversation around big data needs to shift away from simply whether it is an invasion of privacy, and enter the public consciousness as a tool that can benefit every facet of our daily lives. Documentaries such as The Human Face of Big Data face an uphill battle to change public perceptions, purely because the narrative of Big Data as an evil monolithic being is far more entertaining than the reality, but data is already a fact of life, and it is also important that we not let fear and paranoia prevent us from making the most of its potential.