What Do Centenarians, the Census and the Cloud All Have in Common?

My grandmother lived to be over 100 years old, although she never looked it. I often wonder if our family has some “longevity” gene, or if her age is unique to our history.

I could have my personal genome mapped to predict my own longevity — as I learned when writing about how cloud and big data are disrupting the Human Genome.

But when my sister, our family historian, discovered other centenarian ancestors – not sure I want to know more!

Have we reached a point in the Information Age where “not knowing” is better than “knowing?”

With today’s access to huge amounts of data in the cloud – about ourselves and others around us — we have a unique opportunity to unravel the mystery behind who we really are, by connecting our past with our future.

I happened to be at lunch with the folks from Inflection on April 2, when the 1940 U.S. Census data was unveiled. How exciting to be with some of the contributors who made it happen!

Inflection is a big data platform start-up here in the San Francisco Bay area noted for its family tree history website Archives.com. The Archives.com team worked closely with the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) to build and host the 1940 census data on a website in the public cloud. And for the first time ever, census data can now be accessed in 3.8 million pages of searchable digital images.

These original census document images include name, age, gender, relationship to head of household, birthplace, education, occupation and much more – to better tell the story of one’s family and forebears.

The 1940 U.S. census is “expected to be the most popular U.S. record collection” available. Genealogy enthusiasts can now search the “largest, most comprehensive recent record set” of 132 million people living in the 48 continental United States in 1940.

Since tens of millions of those people are still alive, this archive for the first time connects living memory with recent family records for the generation thought by many to be the greatest … of people who survived the Great Depression, fought in the Second World War, and innovated early technologies like television to create a proud heritage for technology innovators today.

Furthermore, having access to the original forms used when families were interviewed lets us “see and touch” our family historyas it happened. These documents could also add information not recorded elsewhere, like relatives who married young and changed names or died young.

In a wonderful “old to new” example of how Moore’s Law governs technology cycles, “yesterday’s” 1940 census data will be indexed by community volunteers recruited with “today’s” crowd sourcing method – using social media applications like Facebook, Twitter, and blogs. The resultant index of census records and images will then be published state by state with free access for all.

This technology symbiosis of big data in the cloud with social media technologies has unlocked the power to paint an end-to-end picture of who we are, from our roots to our potential legacy.

It has also engendered a new work paradigm in which a Federal government agency, NARA, has creatively partnered with software start-up Inflection and others to deliver transparent data access to citizens for free.

This is yet another example of how government can be nimble and quick like a start-up, to innovate new citizen services at “Internet speed and the cost of cloud.”

The enhanced consumer value — the clever partnerships – the transparency of information — all are made possible by the confluence of cloud, big data and social media.

I often reflect on how we in the Digital Age are not only changing the way we live, but also making history for our own descendants.

Perhaps it’s better to not know everything about the future, as there is both wisdom and pleasure in enjoying the journey.