Creating a better world with data

Social organizations, emerging nations harness power of big data.

EMC’s Dave Menninger 370 (photo credit: Courtesy EMC)
EMC’s Dave Menninger 370
(photo credit: Courtesy EMC)
LONDON – More information will be generated by and about any child born in 2012 than the amount of information generated by the entire preceding history of humanity since the dawn of time, according to Dave Menninger, head of business development and strategy for Greenplum, EMC’s big-data analytics unit.
During the first day of a baby’s life, the amount of data generated by humanity is equivalent to 70 times the information contained in the Library of Congress, and 10 percent of all the photos ever taken were snapped in the last 12 months, he said at the Human Face of Big Data Mission Control event in London last week.
It seems that data is everywhere, and big data is the latest buzzword in the tech world, Menninger said.
“The big-data revolution is the next crux point that has the potential to bring truly incremental change to the world and the citizens of the world,” he said.
In an analogy to the Internet, Menninger said, “People knew something was big, but they didn’t know how big.
Big data is in the same situation.”
Similar events were also held last week in New York City and Singapore, where data-storage company EMC launched a crowd-sourced media event produced by Rick Smolan, the creator of projects such as “Day in the Life” and the Obama Time Capsule.
According to EMC, the project aims to shine a light on “humanity’s new ability to collect, analyze, triangulate and visualize vast amounts of data in real time.”
Among the speakers at the London event were socially minded entrepreneurs and executives, including Jake Porway, founder and executive creator of DataKind, which works to connect data scientists with nonprofits; and David Lundberg, COO of location intelligence provider aWhere, which is putting into practice the transformative power of data to create a better world.
Porway organizes so-called data dives, in which volunteer data scientists hook up with social organizations to help them with their data needs by doing things such as making visualizations out of data so that the organizations can immediately see where resources are needed.
“Big data is changing our world, and, for the first time in history, we have the ability to use data on our own to change the world for the better,” Porway said.
“By connecting the skills of the data-science community with the causes and vision of the social sector, we can go beyond just using data to make better decisions about what kind of movies we want to see, or what restaurants we want to go to, and instead use data to make better decisions about what kind of a world we want to see.”
Both Porway and Lundberg expect a quantum shift in society will be brought about by big data.
Porway said the hookup between data scientists and visionary nonprofits would create a fundamental change in the way progress happens.
“No longer do we necessarily need institutions like government and large companies to do things,” he said. “We have these multidisciplinary teams bubbling bottom up. This is one of the first steps we are seeing toward a new kind of science.”
Lundberg said the “democratization of data” means developing nations can become sustainable sooner. His company, aWhere, provides agricultural development and global health solutions, including command and control systems for malaria, a disease that causes the death of some 1.2 million people every year, most of them under the age of five.
Using images from satellites to map the approximately 600 trillion pixels that cover the face of the earth, scientists can compare pixel spectrums to see whether water is clean or full of algae that can be a breeding ground for mosquitos, Lundberg said.
“With high-capacity processing available today, large geographical areas can be searched quickly,” he said. “Searches that would take months or years by people on the ground can be done in a matter of hours.”
Lundberg said the technology was developed to tackle a problem caused by the economic crisis in the US: abandoned swimming pools due to the high number of home foreclosures. An abandoned swimming pool can turn into a mosquito breeding site in just a few weeks, he said, and water that is in a state that supports mosquito larvae has a different spectral signature than that of clean water.
The solution developed for a developed- world problem is now being applied to developing nations, Lundberg said.
“With this kind of technology, organizations and nations can harness the power of data to change lives,” he said.
“Data is being generated at an unbelievable rate, but the insight from that data remains unreachable for most countries. When we can provide the power of location intelligence to these nations they can become sustainable sooner. Big aid organizations really want to be working themselves out of a job. By better sharing of information we can be helping them towards that.”
The reporter was a guest of EMC in London.