Rick Smolan, a former Time, Life, and National Geographic photographer, is best known as the co-creator of the “Day in the Life” book series. Today Smolan is the CEO of Against All Odds Productions, which orchestrates global photography projects that combine creative storytelling with state-of-the-art technology. In this talk, he shares some of the real-time visualizations of data collected by satellites and by billions of sensors, RFID tags, and GPS-enabled cameras and smartphones around the world, which he believes enable humanity to sense, measure, understand, and affect aspects of  existence in ways our ancestors could never have imagined. Read the full transcript below.

Kirkpatrick:  So we’ve heard some big picture thoughts about where the world is going. We’ve gotten pretty deep in a particular technology of artificial intelligence. You know, when you look at what’s happening in the world right now there’s four big tech things happening: Social, mobile, cloud and big data. We’re going to touch on every one of those here.  We heard quite a bit about mobile already.

One thing we’re going to hear right now is one thing about big data from Rick Smolan who is one of the great journalists. He’s a photographer, but he’s become a journalist of mass experience. He did all the 24 Hours in the Life of Books. Now he’s focusing on the Human Face of Big Data. You will find it really elucidating. So please, Rick, take it away.

Smolan:  Thanks, David.

So, I probably have one of the best jobs in the world. Every 18 months I get to invite my heros and my peers and some young photographers and send them off on these crazy mission impossible assignments.

I wanted to tell you about our latest adventure.  The greatest thing about being a journalist, as David and I both know, is that you get to go into areas you know nothing about and you get some of the smartest people in that area and spend time and educate you.  And then hopefully along the way you get to share your journey with a larger audience.

So I’m going to give you sort of a quick history of our projects and talk specifically about the world of big data. It’s been probably the most interesting year I’ve spent.

I have a small group of friends. We get together about every 18 months. We bring in teams of journalists around the world. We do books, CD ROMs and TV shows and we basically sort of focus on this idea of what happens over a defined period of time. I had the idea many years ago as a young photographer of inviting all my heros and peers and friends to get together and I got turned down by every publisher in the world with this “day in the life” concept. They told me it was the stupidest thing they’ve heard of. There was no market for coffee table books. So I went to private companies and begged for resources.  I went to Steve Jobs and begged for computers. I went to Kodak and begged for film. I went to Qantas Airlines and begged for airline tickets.

One of the things I’ve always said to these companies is I’ll thank you in the book. But we don’t do product placement. We are a completely independent group of journalists.

After doing the Day in the Life books, I thought, what if you did the same concept and instead of a country a day, you did a deep dive on emerging topics?  Like the first year, the Internet was starting to touch humanity or the global water crisis or how the human race is learning to heal itself.

One of the things that never occurred to me is that when you invite photographers and writers and editors from the world’s leading publications, I sort of stumbled backwards into this amazing sort of publicity the. All of a sudden, all the people working on our projects were helping tell the story of what we learned.

Not only was it a book, but suddenly we had a worldwide audience to tell this story in lots of different mediums. The “died and gone to heaven” moment was the following—that’s the last thing I show you about our history.


Winfrey: I found my next favorite thing one day when I was just going through the bookstore—one of my favorite things to do is to go to the bookstore.  You-all heard?

So I found this book. It is a great gift. It’s called America 24/7. It is from New York Times number one best selling authors, Rick Smolan.


Smolan:  So, anyway, it doesn’t get any better than that. That’s your “died and gone to heaven” moment in publishing.

A year ago, I was at the Ted conference—and I love going to conferences—I ran into Marissa Mayer, and we were talking about next projects and she was asking, what are you going to work on next?

She’s been an incredible friend and a wonderful supporter of these projects when she was at Google. She said if was you, I’d take a look at this world of big data.

I said, what’s big data?

I had actually heard about other people at the conference talking about it as well. One person I asked about big data, they said, It’s so much data it doesn’t fit into your personal computer.

Another person said, no, no, different data sets from lots of different organizations overlap and you look for these patterns.

I said I’m a photographer. I don’t really get this.

Marissa said, Rick, the planet is growing a nervous system, and we’re all helping that happen. We’re becoming human sensors on this global emerging network, sort of along the lines of what Ray was just talking about.

I thought, okay, that’s really interesting. She actually gave us our first five assignments. One of the things Marissa did is she pointed me to this wonderful quote by Eric Schmidt.

I’m not a scientist. I’m not a programmer. I’m not from the world of technology. I have no idea what an exabyte is. When she showed me this quote, it gave at the sense of the magnitude of all of this.

I also saw another quote, which I thought was pretty interesting, which was the cost now of sensing things or measuring things of collecting the data is plummeting.

So now we have the ability to collect the data, process it, visualize it and change our behavior while we are still collecting the data.

And then finally Esther Dyson was the one that mentioned to me—again, I get to talk to these wonderfully, incredibly smart people that have sort of taken the time to educate me along the way.

Now these devices are actually generating more data than we are. And they’re starting to change their behavior. And we no longer the center of the data conversation, which is interesting.

Now the way the media was covering this story until about six months ago is the moment you heard the word “big data” you always heard it followed by “big brother.” There’s no question, also as Ray said, that every new technology comes with the possibility of being misused. But it reminds me of the early days of the Internet.

People were saying what is this Internet thing?

E-mail with pictures, a better way to deliver pornography?

Yeah, it is, but it probably does some other things pretty well too, as we’ve discovered over the last 20 years.

My son is 10 years old and he hears me interviewing and talking to people about big data. He said dad, every time you’re on the phone, I hear this big data thing, big data. What is big data?

So I’m thinking how do you explain to a ten-year-old what big data is?  I was struggling for an analogy, I said, Jesse, imagine if your whole life you had been looking through one eye and all of a sudden for the first time in your life you were able to open up a second eye. You’re not just getting more data. You’re not getting more vision. You’re getting a new dimension of it.

He said, is that what computers do?

I said, exactly.

He said, could a computer open up a third eye and fourth and a thousand eyes?

If you’re ten years old a thousand eyes is really cool. I said, yeah, that’s exactly what computers are doing.

So let me show you some of the things we discovered. We tried to look at as many different areas of human endeavor as possible. I’m going to talk quickly because we’ve only got a few more moments.

This story has literally turned out to be the most interesting thing I’ve ever been working at.  We sent 100 journalists around the world to 30 countries to look for stories, take photographs of big data.

My brother is a filmmaker. He said, Rick, when you open up your books, start them the way I start a movie. Grab the audience.

Here is a couple big thoughts. All of you here in this audience know about this. But this is aimed at the general public. It’s also aimed at all of you.

So the amount of information that we’re exposed to now in the course of a day is as much as somebody from 15th Century was exposed to in their entire lifetime.

Now that’s a thought that you kind of go, whoa, that’s amazing. I mean, just the scale of the amount of information we’re dealing with.

The amount of information generated during the first day of a baby’s life is 70 times the information in the Library of Congress.

You know how Apple has “find my iPhone,” there’s actually something now which is kind of like find my teenager. Progressive Auto Insurance will install this black box into your car if you allow them to track your driving throughout the day so they know how fast you’re driving, where you driving, what time of night, how quickly you change lanes.

But this idea basically that everything we’re doing now is being recorded forever. So if any of you are planning to run for political office, remember none of this information will ever disappear.

Obviously the effect of open data amplified by Twitter and Facebook has had enormous impact on world politics. I will show you some of the specific examples.

The day the earthquake hit in Japan, obviously, a horrible, horrible occurrence. But I heard an amazing story on Marketplace. Kai Ryssdol told this story that 43 seconds before the earthquake hit, every bullet train and every factory in Japan stopped. They have spent over half a billion dollars over 15 years installing an early earthquake warning systems, which worked very effectively.  Imagine being on a bullet train and having the ground moving like that.

Then I discovered a group of programmers in Palo Alto created something called Quake Catcher. This is the accelerometer in your laptop to look for movement.  If it sees a truck going by your house, it knows that’s not an earthquake. But if it sees over a 30-mile area the same pattern of vibration—so you have now a free ubiquitous crowd sourced global early warning system and people are doing this just simply to help each other. it Just using the power of their computers.

In the South Pacific, a group of scientists are actually putting sensing devices on animals like elephants, seals and using them to map migration patterns. Whenever one of these animals gets close enough to one of these 60 transponders, it grabs the data, goes up to the surface, up to a satellite. My kids loved this story in particular.

Imagine getting your American Express Bill next month and there’s no itemization. Would any of us pay a credit card bill if we couldn’t see what we were spending it on?  And yet we get an electrical bill every month, none of us have the faintest idea what it is we are spending our money on.

Shwetak Patel is 27 years old. It’s his third startup. He’s a MacArthur fellow. He invented a little technology you plug anywhere in your house and it recognizes the digital signature of every appliance in your house.

I said, this is really cool. Is it being used yet?

He said, it’s about to be deployed by Belkin.

I said, tell me something you learned that would surprise the average American.

He said, the average American spends 11 percent of their electrical bill on the DVR, that little box sitting under their TV that’s spinning all day long. It doesn’t spin down.

So instead of drilling a new oil well or nuclear power plant, redesign the DVR and you can cut America’s energy bill by 5 percent.

I’m going to jump through some of these stories.

This is a wonderful story of looking through data. The way most people look at crime data is they look at where the crimes are committed. Well, an organization is actually looking at where the criminals lived before we went to jail.

You say, well, who cares where they live?

Well, maybe since putting people in jail doesn’t appear to solve the problem, maybe if you go to where these families come from, where criminals come from—these are blocks in New York City where Mayor Bloomberg spends a million dollars a year just on that one square block.  Maybe this is where you put an early childhood intervention or career counseling or drug counseling.

A third of the drugs in Africa are counterfeit, the last picture that was up there—it’s a new technology that lets you actually SMS a code on the back of the bottle to see if it’s legitimate or not.

For years radar operators have been trying to filter out the noise from birds and bees and bats around airports so you could see the planes.

A group of scientists recently said, wait a second. You’ve got 15 years of migration patterns of bats and birds and you have been throwing it away?

So what’s so interesting is that what to one person is noise you’re trying to get rid of, to somebody else is incredibly valuable.

The Gates Foundation and an organization called ESRI.  ESRI is using satellite mapping to find villages in Nigeria that don’t exist on any known maps. The Gates Foundation is trying to eradicate polio. So by looking at these maps, finding villages that nobody knows are there, giving out GPS-enabled cell phones, they’re actually using satellites to help eradicate Polio in developing worlds.

A group of doctors found out if you took 24 hours of your EKG, they can actually predict who is going to have a heart attack again in two years after you have your first heart attack. Until then, they were throwing away all the data and looking at 30 seconds of your EKG while you’re in the hospital.

I will tell you one last story. I’m just about out of time. My mom is going to be turning 90 very soon. My dad died five years ago and my mother started falling about three years ago. After the third time she fell, no one found her for three hours. My brother and sister and I said, Mom, you’ve got to move in with us. You can’t live by yourself anymore. It’s just too dangerous.

Of course she didn’t want to do that. So I hired women to live with her in shifts, which she hated. They’re stealing my garbage bags.

I said, Mom, they’re not stealing your garbage bags.

Anyway, I found out that Intel and GE are working on a series of projects aimed at aging at home.  The have something called the Magic Carpet which they install in the home of your loved one that basically creates a pattern that says this is how Rick’s mom walks on a normal day when things are okay.

On a day where suddenly her balance is off, her gait is off or it’s 11 o’clock in the morning and she hasn’t touched the carpet, they notify you. There is no camera, no invasion of her privacy.

All of this technology—and the whole purpose of doing this book is to actually give people a sense of how this is affecting our lives on a day-to-day basis. This is pizza delivery in New York City on a Friday night.

We did some interesting info graphics by Nigel Holmes looking at Twitter and Facebook and all the companies that are using data in really interesting ways, and I’m just going to get to the end of this, David, I’m almost there.

The company that actually funded this whole project is EMC. They’re the ones that made this whole project possible. They give us complete carte blanche to do a project. Thank you, EMC, greatly.

The other two companies I wanted to mention is Cisco is funding a documentary about this right now, but one of my fantasies was to deliver this book and put it into the hands of 10,000 of the most interesting influential men and women in the world. So I went to FedEx—actually, David introduced me to Rob Carter at FedEx, and FedEx on, December 4th, is delivering this book to world leaders, Fortune 500 CEOs, head of media companies.

The reason is not to say that big data is going to solve all our problems, but right now companies and governments are thinking about dig data in a really big way. I think individuals need to be thinking about this as well.

I believe that big data is going to have a much bigger effect on our lives than the Internet has so far. And I wanted to spark global conversations.  I’m very grateful to these companies for giving us the ability to do this, to our journalists, and, David, thank you so much for inviting me today.

Kirkpatrick:  I love this project and I love the work you do. You stay on stage because you’re going to be part of the next panel called “The Forest for the Trees: The Meanings of Data.”

And the moderator, Justin Fox, is an old friend and colleague of mine with fortune who is now the editorial director of the Harvard Business Review and someone who’s had quite a long extensive interest in this topic.

I will let him introduce his panelists, who I think should all come on stage now.

So Justin Fox and the data panel. Take it away.