This week the Human Face of Big Data (HFOBD) project had its London launch tying in with others in Singapore and New York. HFOBD is a crowdsource project that calls upon people to submit information (via a mobile app questionnaire) about various aspects of their life concerning their experiences, beliefs and attitudes, that in turn, is collected, analysed and visualized in an attempt to take a ‘global pulse’ of people from around the world. It is in fact Rick Smolan’s project—creator of a Day in the Life book series—who will use the information to portray how Big Data is impacting the world. In partnership with Rick, EMC, the storage and analytic database vendor, is acting as the primary sponsor of the project alongside others including Cisco, Tableau and VMWare.
As part of the London event, EMC showcased several compelling case studies that aptly demonstrated the benefits and potential of Big Data. Firstly there was Jake Porway, Founder and Executive Director of Datakind, who spoke very ebulliently about his organisation’s ability to connect data scientists with social and charitable organisations (such as DC Action Kids) to help them harness the value of Big Data for good causes. Similarly COO Dave Lundberg, at aWhere, spoke about how his company uses Big Data location intelligence to support global development projects such as African based community-based health initiatives.
There’s no denying that both speakers provided compelling and engaging stories about the power of Big Data but it did leave me pondering somewhat where EMC fitted in all of this. We know the company is a keen advocator of Big Data—not really surprising for a storage and analytic database vendor—but it wasn’t totally clear to me if the company was taking any sort of active and continuous role in driving similar social and global development Big Data projects. Although the company has committed to donate $1 per for the first 50k HFOBD downloads to the charity Water, no clear indication was given at the event as to what the company’s plans are in terms of future humanitarian Big Data projects.
Regardless of this, the HFOBD project still provides EMC with a very high profile and innovative marketing platform.This is particularly important now given that we are in the early stages of Big Data market maturity, where organisations and enterprises need education and advice about the opportunities, challenges and business value of using of Big Data. If EMC are successful in building awareness and garner enough participants for the project (which it appears it has) the project will no doubt be deemed a success. But I also believe another, more subtle, success metric for the project is whether it was able to counteract the view that capturing, analysing and using Big Data is akin to having an Orwellian Big Brother society.
While the HFOBD project was good at presenting a positive and virtuous view of the use cases for Big Data it didn’t, in my view, tackle some of the tougher questions surrounding its use, especially the concerns people have about data privacy and misuse. It’s fair to say that we have already seen signs of backlash about the monitoring and use of Big Data, none more so that in the social networking space where software providers such as Facebook have often had to defend their data privacy position. Incidents like these plus a general unease about the extraordinary quantity of data that is amassed about us as citizens, consumers or businesses means many remain skeptical about the promise of Big Data.
For vendors like EMC this poses both a challenge and opportunity. Above all it will require technology vendors to set an example about the appropriate use of Big Data in solving real world problems, as well as providing support to its customers not only with the technical and management challenges posed by big data but also its effective governance and security. All of these factors I believe will help contribute to the human face of Big Data.