Movie Review of “The Human Face of Big Data”

"Blue and Pink Fractal", Image by dev Moore

“Blue and Pink Fractal”, Image by dev Moore

What does big data look like, anyway?

To try to find out, I was very fortunate to have obtained a pass to see a screening of a most enlightening new documentary called The Human Face of Big Data. The event was held on October 20, 2015 at Civic Hall in the Flatiron District in New York.

The film’s executive producer, Rick Smolan, (@ricksmolan), first made some brief introductory remarks about his professional work and the film we were about to see. Among his many accomplishments as a photographer and writer, he was the originator and driving force behind the A Day in the Life series of books where teams of photographers were dispatched to take pictures of different countries for each volume in such places as, among others, the United States, Japan and Spain.

He also added a whole new meaning to a having a hand in casting in his field by explaining to the audience that he had recently fallen from a try on his son’s scooter and hence his right hand was in a cast.

As the lights were dimmed and the film began, someone sitting right in front of me did something that was also, quite literally, enlightening but clearly in the wrong place and at the wrong time by opening up a laptop with a large and very bright screen. This was very distracting so I quickly switched seats. In retrospect, doing so also had the unintentional effect of providing me with a metaphor for the film: From my new perspective in the auditorium, I was seeing a movie that was likewise providing me with a whole new perspective on this important subject.

This film proceeded to provide an engrossing and informative examination of what exactly is “big data”, how it is gathered and analyzed, and its relative virtues and drawbacks.¹ It accomplished all of this by addressing these angles with segments of detailed expositions intercut with interviews of leading experts. In his comments afterwards, Mr. Smolan described big data as becoming a form of “nervous system” currently threading out across our entire planet.

Other documentarians could learn much from his team’s efforts as they smartly surveyed the Big Dataverse while economically compressing their production into a very compact and efficient package. Rather than a paint by, well, numbers production with overly long technical excursions, they deftly brought their subject to life with some excellent composition and editing of a wealth of multimedia content.

All of the film’s topics and transitions between them were appreciable evenhanded. Some segments specifically delved into how big data systems vacuum up this quantum of information and how it positively and negatively affects consumers and other demographic populations. Other passages raised troubling concerns about the loss of personal privacy in recent revelations concerning the electronic operations conducted by the government and the private sector.

I found the most compelling part of the film to be an interview with Dr. Eric Topol, (@EricTopol), a leading proponent of digital medicine, using smart phones as a medical information platform, and empowering patients to take control of their own medical data.² He spoke about the significance of the massive quantities and online availability of medical data and what this transformation  mean to everyone. His optimism and insights about big data having a genuine impact upon the quality of life for people across the globe was representative of this movie’s measured balance between optimism and caution.

This movie’s overall impression analogously reminded me of the promotional sponges that my local grocery used to hand out.  When you returned home and later added a few drops of water to these very small, flat and dried out novelties, they quickly and voluminously expanded. So too, here in just a 52-minute film, Mr. Smolan and his team have assembled a far-reaching and compelling view of the rapidly expanding parsecs of big data. All the audience needed to access, comprehend and soak up all of this rich subject matter was an open mind to new ideas.

Mr. Smolan returned to the stage after the movie ended to graciously and enthusiastically answer questions from the audience. It was clear from the comments and questions that nearly everyone there, whether they were familiar or unfamiliar with big data, had greatly enjoyed this cinematic tour of this subject and its implications. The audience’s well-informed inquiries concerned the following topics:

  • the ethics and security of big data collection
  • the degrees to which science fiction is now become science fact
  • the emergence and implications of virtual reality and augment reality with respect to entertainment and the role of big data in these productions³
  • the effects and influences of big data in medicine, law and other professions
  • the applications of big data towards extending human lifespans

Mr. Smolan also mentioned that his film will be shown on PBS in 2016. When it becomes scheduled, I very highly recommend setting some time aside to view it in its entirety.

Big data’s many conduits, trends, policies and impacts relentlessly continue to extend their global grasp. The Human Face of Big Data delivers a fully realized and expertly produced means for comprehending and evaluating this crucial and unavoidable phenomenon. This documentary is a lot to absorb yet an apt (and indeed fully app-ed), place to start.

 


One of the premiere online resources for anything and everything about movies is IMDB.com. It has just reached its 25th anniversary which was celebrated in a post in VentureBeat.com on October 30, 2015, entitled 25 Years of IMDb, the World’s Biggest Online Movie Database by Paul Sawers.


1These 44 Subway Fold Posts covered many of the latest developments in different fields, marketplaces and professions in the category of Big Data and Analytics.

2.  See also this March 3, 2015 Subway Fold post reviewing Dr. Topol’s latest book, entitled Book Review of “The Patient Will See You Now”.

3These 11 Subway Fold Posts cover many of the latest developments in the arts, sciences, and media industries in the category of Virtual and Augmented Reality. For two of the latest examples, see an article from the October 20, 2015 edition of The New York Times entitled The Times Partners With Google on Virtual Reality Project by Ravi Somaiya, and an article on Fortune.com on September 27, 2015 entitled Oculus Teams Up with 20th Century Fox to Bring Virtual Reality to Movies by Michael Addady. (I’m just speculating here, but perhaps The Human Face of Big Data would be well-suited for VR formatting and audience immersion.)

The New York Times Introduces Virtual Reality Tech into Their Reporting Operations

"Mobile World Congress 2015", Image by Jobopa

“Mobile World Congress 2015”, Image by Jobopa

As incredibly vast as New York City is, it has always been a great place to walk around. Its multitude of wonderfully diverse neighborhoods, streets, buildings, parks, shops and endless array of other sites can always be more fully appreciated going on foot here and there in – – as we NYC natives like call it – – “The City”.

The April 26, 2015 edition of The New York Times Magazine was devoted to this tradition. The lead off piece by Steve Duenes was entitled How to Walk in New York.  This was followed by several other pieces and then reports on 15 walks around specific neighborhoods. (Clicking on the Magazine’s link above and then scrolling down to the second and third pages will produce links to nearly all of these articles.) I was thrilled by reading this because I am such an avid walker myself.

The very next day, on May 27, 2015, Wired.com carried a fascinating story about how one of the issues’ accompanying and rather astonishing supporting graphics was actually done in a report by Angela Watercutter entitled How the NY Times is Sparking the VR Journalism Revolution.  But even that’s not the half of it – – the NYTimes has made available for downloading a full virtual reality file of the full construction and deconstruction of the graphic. The Wired.com post contains the link as well as a truly mind-boggling high-speed YouTube video of the graphic’s rapid appearance and disappearance and a screen capture from the VR file itself. (Is “screen capture” really accurate to describe it or is something more like “VR  frame”?)  This could take news reporting into an entirely new dimension where viewers literally go inside of a story.

I will sum up, annotate and pose a few questions about this story. (For another other enthusiastic Subway Fold post about VR, last updated on March 26, 2015, please see Virtual Reality Movies Wow Audiences at 2015’s Sundance and SXSW Festivals.)

This all began on April 11, 2015 when a French artist named JR pieced together and then removed in less than 24 hours, a 150-foot photograph right across the street from the landmark Flatiron Building. This New York Times commissioned image was of “a 20-year-old Azerbaijani immigrant named Elmar Aliyev”. It was used on the cover of this special NYTimes Magazine edition. Upon its completion JR then photographed from a helicopter hovering above. (See the March 19, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled  Spectacular Views of New York, San Francisco and Las Vegas at Night from 7,500 Feet Up for another innovative project inject involving highly advanced photography of New York also taken from a helicopter.)

The NYTimes deployed VR technology from a company called VRSE.tools to transform this whole artistic experience into a fully immersive presentation entitled Walking New York. The paper introduced this new creation at a news conference on April 27th. To summarize the NYTimes Magazine’s editor-in-chief, Jake Silverstein, this project was chosen for a VR implementation because it would so dramatically enhance a viewer’s experience of it. Otherwise, pedestrians walking over the image across the sidewalk would not nearly get the full effect of it.

Viewing Walking New York in full VR mode will require an app from VRSE’s site (linked above), and a VR viewer such as, among others, Google Cardboard.

The boost to VR as an emerging medium by the NYTimes‘ engagement on this project is quite significant. Moreover, this demonstrates how it can now be implemented in journalism. Mr. Silverman, to paraphrase his points of view,  believes this demonstrates how it can be used to literally and virtually bring someone into a story. Furthermore, by doing so, the effect upon the VR viewer is likely to be an increased amount of empathy for certain individuals and circumstances who are the subjects of these more immersive reports.

There will more than likely be a long way to go before “VR filming rigs” can be sent out by news organizations to cover stories as they occur. The hardware is just now that widespread or mainstream yet. As well, the number of people who are trained and know how to use this equipment is still quite small and, even for those who do, preparing such a virtual presentation lags behind today’s pace of news reporting.

Another journalist venturing into VR work is Newsweek reporter Nonny de la Pena’s reconstruction of the shooting in the Trayvon Martin case. (See ‘Godmother of VR’ Sees Journalism as the Future of Virtual Reality by Edward Helmore, posted on The Guardian’s website on March 11, 2015, for in-depth coverage of her innovative efforts.)

Let’s assume that out on the not too distant horizon that VR journalism gains acceptance, its mobility and ease-of-use increases, and the rosters of VR-trained reporters and producers increases so that this field undergoes some genuine economies of scale. Then, as with many other life cycles of emergent technologies, the applications in this nascent field would only become limited by the imaginations by its professionals and their audiences. My questions are as follows:

  • What if the leading social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook (which already purchased Oculus, the maker of VR headsets for $2B last year),  LinkedIn, Instagram (VR Instgramming, anyone?), and others integrate VR into their capabilities? For example, Twitter has recently added a live video feature called Periscope that its users have quickly and widely embraced. In fact, it is already being used for live news reporting as users turn their phones towards live events as they happen. Would they just as likely equally swarm to VR?
  • What if new startup social media platforms launch that are purely focused on experiencing news, commentary, and discussion in VR?
  • Will previously unanticipated ethical standards be needed and likewise dilemmas result as journalists move up the experience curve with VR?
  • How would the data and analytics firms that parse and interpret social media looking for news trends add VR newsfeeds into their operations and results? (See the Subway Fold posts on January 21, 2015 entitled The Transformation of News Distribution by Social Media Platforms in 2015 and on December 2, 2014 entitled Startup is Visualizing and Interpreting Massive Quantities of Daily Online News Content.)
  • Can and should VR be applied to breaking news, documentaries and news shows such as 60 Minutes? What could be the potential risks in doing so?
  • Can drone technology and VR news gathering be blended into a hybrid flying VR capture platform?

I am also looking forward to seeing what other applications, adaptations and markets for VR journalism will emerge that no one can possibly anticipate at this point.