"The Human Face of Big Data" offers a geek-out-worthy coffee-table book

The latest project from the "Day in the Life" author aims to make big data accessible

"The Human Face of Big Data" is an ambitious and attractive new large-format book that aims to give readers, through photography and short articles, a glimpse of how powerful new data processing capabilities are changing people's lives. Author Rick Smolan is a photographer who gained fame for his "Day in the Life" series, which included an edition focused on the Internet in 1996, "24 Hours in Cyberspace." He says that his latest work is based on the premise that "our planet is beginning to develop a nervous system."

The book is accompanied by an iPad app that debuts Tuesday -- the same day that Smolan is sending a copy of the book to 10,000 people whom he considers the world's most influential. He's hoping to start a "global conversation about the tools and technologies" that he and others think will have an even greater impact than the Internet.

Among the stories highlighted in the book, and illustrated by some of the 100 photojournalists who contributed their work, are the following:

-- J. Craig Venter gained fame for sequencing the humane genome, but he is now using big data tools to create organisms through gene manipulation. His team at Synthetic Genomics has synthesized an entire bacterial genome and introduced it into a cell -- as Venter says, "It was the first self-replicating species on the planet whose parent was a computer."

-- New Jersey physician Dr. Jeffrey Brenner used data analysis to tackle one of the U.S.' biggest problems: rising health care costs. Using a database of 600,000 hospital visits, he built a map linking claims to patient's addresses. He found that just 1 percent of patients were responsible for 30 percent of hospital bills. Driven by that information, he founded the Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers, which dispatches caseworkers to make home visits to the patients with the most problems. The aim is to help patients stay on their medications and out of the emergency room.

-- The legendary computer scientist Gordon Bell may be remembered most as architect of the Digital Equipment Corp. VAX, but now he is engaged in building a whole different set of memories. In a project he calls MyLifeBits he is logging virtually every aspect of his life as a piece of data -- his conversations, keystrokes, location, TV-viewing, real-time records of his heartbeat and cholesterol, and even photos taken every few minutes by a camera he wears around his neck. Bell has logged more than 200GB of data, and is going at a pace of about 1GB per month. According to "The Human Face of Big Data," Bell believes that "collecting and analyzing these patterns and behaviors over the course of a lifetime will lead to a greater understanding of what harms or enhances our lives."

-- The New York City Police Department's Domain Awareness System (DAS) allows officers to access and aggregate data from a broad range of sources: 3,000 surveillance cameras, license plate readers, radiation detectors, 911 calls, arrest records, crime reports and files of data on individuals' personal characteristics from tattoos to limps. NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly has called DAS "one-stop shopping" for investigators.

-- Another case of big data being used by law enforcement is ShotSpotter, which makes use of data gathered by acoustic sensors placed in neighborhoods with the aim of picking up, and locating, gunfire. More than 70 U.S. cities use the tool. ShotSpotter staff in Mountain View, California, monitor data for gunshots, and pass the location information to police who can be on the scene quickly.

-- Weather scientists have long been at the forefront of using all the computing power at their disposal, but now they are going mobile as well. Storm chasers arrive on the scene of a dangerous storm in a heavily armored 13 ton, million-dollar Doppler-on-Wheels truck, full of data-gathering equipment, tools for monitoring data in real-time and radar systems that create three-dimensional models of the storm being monitored.

-- Australia's Integrated Marine Observing System (IMOS) collects and shares among scientists terabytes of data that are gathered by sensor floats, underwater autonomous vehicles, scientific monitoring stations, remote satellite sensing and animal tags. "You don't win by locking up your data and storing it away," says IMOS program director Tim Moltmann. "You win by putting your data out there and collaborating with others." IMOS was started in 2007 and has resulted in about 1,000 studies published annually. A portal to the data is shared with the public on the Web.

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Elizabeth Heichler

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