Fighting Diseases with Big Data

Photo: iStockphoto

Rick Smolan’s idea was to create a platform that made Big Data more accessible, to show just what was possible with this kind of information. So the journalist for Time Magazine and National Geographic joined forces with EMC Corporation, a U.S. software and hardware manufacturer that specializes in storage systems for large data centers. Together, they launched a month-long project called, “The Human Face of Big Data.”

The search for “data doppelgangers”

In this project, Smolan and 100 other journalists put together and published a photographic essay of the people and stories behind the digital data collected. EMC meanwhile started up a data experiment. For this, Smolan developed an app that helped users answer 50 questions about their lives and values and thus find their “doppelganger” or “data double.” In other words, the person who just like them, sleeps 10 hours a night, is married and has five children, for example. As in social networks, the users were able to exchange information about their location, activities, videos, and photos with other users on a common platform.

There are no concrete figures as to how many people participated in the experiment, but according to David Menninger, Head of Business Development & Strategy at Greenplum, the app was downloaded more than 100,000 times. Greenplum is a platform for analyzing Big Data; the company was acquired by EMC in 2009.

So why collect this data? Menninger cites one example of how handling Big Data correctly can help tackle social issues like illness. Combining GPS user data with local health data could help authorities fight and reduce the number of polio cases in Nigeria. Even today, many African towns and villages are not on the map, so it is very difficult to create vaccination plans. But using GPS signals on mobile telephones, authorities are able to design end-to-end vaccination plans and thus treat patients more efficiently.

Next page: Market analysis with big data

David Menninger, Head of Business Development & Strategy at Greenplum. Photo: Privat

A second use, according to EMC, is to create a bigger, more complete picture of the market: Who is buying the product? Where? In what quantities?

Market analysis with Big Data

“Big Data is vital for us in analyzing society and the market. We feel that with this project, we have found an interesting way to understand the market better. Companies still need to figure out how to handle large volumes of data and learn how significant this issue will be in the future,” notes Menninger.

This could one day mean personalized advertising for individuals on television and in their daily lives.

One question remains: Do the photographer and the company share the same goals? We know that Smolan sought to hold up a mirror to society and arouse political awareness for Big Data. But we are still in the dark about EMC’s objectives. Does the company really only want to help society and science, or is it in fact merely collecting data for marketing purposes?