Rick Smolan

Tapping the Potential of Big Data, The ‘World’s Nervous System’

Rick Smolan, former journalist and current big data advocate, shared some of the world's most innovate and creative uses of big data at the ASAE Technology Conference and Expo.

Don’t fear big data, Rick Smolan, former journalist and author of The Human Face of Data, told the audience at the opening session of the 10th annual ASAE Technology Conference and Expo on Tuesday.

“Until about 18 months ago, whenever you saw the words ‘big data,’ it was always followed by ‘big brother,’” and there are reasons why we should be concerned with this growing trend, but there are also plenty of reasons why we should be embracing big data,” Smolan said.

Smolan was first introduced to the concept data several years ago by now Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, who explained that the use and analysis of big data is akin to the world developing a nervous system. “It’s like watching the planet wake up,” Mayer told Smolan.

She explained that we are all walking around with our smartphones and debit cards— things that are constantly collecting data—and that we’re all walking sensors now. Smolan was fascinated by this idea and began the work that would eventually become his book, and later an app and movie. Through his research, he and his team of 100 journalists, film crews, programmers, and designers discovered some of the unique and powerful ways people around the world are using big data.

For example, they discovered a team of volunteer crisis mappers who used social media, specifically live tweets, after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti to help direct relief workers so they could more efficiently deliver medicine, water, and other resources to survivors.

Twitter has become a “broadcast network in your pocket,” Smolan said. The platform is also being used to monitor HIV risk in Los Angeles and to provide live, firsthand accounts of monumental events such as the Arab Spring.

Aid workers are also using big data, in the form of high-resolution satellite maps, to help stamp out the polio virus in Nigeria, which has experienced the highest resurgence of the virus of any country in the world. A company that creates high-resolution maps for governments and municipalities is now mapping Nigeria to identify previously unknown villages to ensure that everyone in the country is being inoculated.

These are only a handful of the creative uses of big data that exist throughout the world, and they demonstrate the extent to which we all, including associations, can be thinking more creatively with the use of technology, said Reggie Henry, CAE, ASAE CIO. “We now have the tools we need to create new association futures,” he said.


Rick Smolan speaks during the 2015 ASAE Technology Conference.

Katie Bascuas

By Katie Bascuas

Katie Bascuas is associate editor of Associations Now. MORE

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