The Human Face of Big Data

Big Data is the latest technology trend being splashed across mainstream media. Undoubtedly, some write it off as the latest fad that will soon fade. And yet the potential for Big Data is captivating.

A new documentary – The Human Face of Big Data – explores that potential. Buried within the mountains of electronic ones and zeros we generate every day are patterns. Big Data proponents believe those patterns contain keys to solving our biggest and smallest problems alike, whether social injustice, health epidemics and disease, or saving the planet from, well, humans.

As experienced journalists and documentary film producers, brothers Rick and Sandy Smolan don’t paint a one-sided view. Early on in the film one expert states, “what can be used for good can also be used for evil,” and the documentary explores how Big Data can also invade individual privacy, oppress and control people, and attack the very roots of democracy and freedom.

Which raises a crucial idea: The biggest challenges with Big Data are not technological but human.

We often hold a fatalistic view of technology. We seem to believe technology is a force we cannot control; as if we are all just passengers on the train, unable to get on or off, rocketing down a predestined track. Yet this is not true. Yes, technological capability will likely change us and our culture, but it is not one way. We can shape and be shaped through Big Data. The biggest challenge is deciding what we want change to look like and how to make it a reality.

Answering this question may be a natural starting point: What does it mean to be human in an era of ones and zeros?

The fatalist views humans simply as another variable to be optimized, employees simply as tools to be maximized, patients as imperfections to be improved. What a depressing thought.

The era of ones and zeros is an opportunity to make us more human, not less.

The Human Face of Big Data documentary gives us a platform to begin the conversation, to break the ice if you will. The film was recently screened at a number of North American film festivals, including the Boston International Film Festival where it won the best cinematography award for a documentary.

It should get wider distribution later this year. In the meantime, join upcoming SAP events where it is being screened. You won’t be disappointed! As a sponsor of the project, SAP has the privilege of screening it at SAP events, including the SAP Forum in Austria and the SAP Forum in Basel, Switzerland last month. It has been exciting to hear how people are affected when they see Big Data’s human face.

Big Data has a human face in my life.

Statistically, 40% of all North Americans will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their life. It’s staggering. And it’s personal. Two years ago today my wife and I lost our friend Christine to breast cancer, and our friend Tracy passed away days later to the same battle. Both left behind young families after years fighting the disease.

Weeks before our two friends passed away I learned about Mitsui Knowledge Industry, an SAP customer exploring personalized cancer treatment. In essence, early research shows that cancer patients respond to certain treatments better than others based on mutations in their DNA. By understanding a patient’s mutations doctors can choose the cancer treatment that will deliver the best results for her body. As a result, doctors can reduce the grueling rounds of chemotherapy and other treatments, and improve the quality of life. MKI’s story made the potential of Big Data very real to me.

What is your human face of big data?