Panel Debates Ideas Covered in 'Human Face of Big Data' Documentary

A TV show about big data? That may sound like something you’d find on a cable channel reserved for data scientists and academics, but it’s not.

Big Data Documentary 2

SAN JOSE, Calif.—A panel of industry experts here debated the merits and impact of big data following a preview of an hourlong documentary on the topic that will premiere nationally on PBS channels Feb. 24.

The documentary, The Human Face of Big Data, is based in part on the coffee table book of the same name that came out in 2012. But Rick Smolan, co-author and driving force behind the book, says the movie, directed by his brother Sandy Smolan, presents fresh examples of big data in action in fields such as health care and government and only refers to about 20 percent of the book's content.

"Our goal with this project was to spark a global conversation about the human aspects of big data— and how it is changing our lives for better and worse," said Sandy Smolan. The movie preview Feb. 9 at the Montgomery Theater here included a panel discussion among industry thought leaders on the topic of "using big data for good."

The primary backer of the documentary was EMC with support from Cisco Systems, SAP and FedEx.

The panel participants and attendees noted that the rapid adoption and wide application of big data analytics are making the technology almost a household term.

Panel moderator Michael Malone, a journalist and Silicon Valley historian, said that big data has more range than any new technology he's ever seen. "I already see it impacting health and medicine, transportation, natural sciences, cosmology, retail, consumer customization, conservation, weather forecasting and defense. And I'm sure there are a hundred more areas I could think of."

"The idea of big data has been floating in the mainstream for quite some time," Tim Bajarin, president of IT industry analyst Creative Strategies and an attendee of the big data panel session, told eWEEK.

"But now there is more understanding of its impact thanks to things like the book and the movie that clarifies how all this data is being collected and how it impacts or lives. It's a big challenge to make sense of it all," Bajarin said.

The impact is why companies such as SAP, a sponsor of the movie and a panel participant, are so heavily involved in big data, he noted.

Panelist Quentin Clark, chief business officer at SAP, said that although we talk about big data as an aspect of computing now, in five to 10 years the term will fade away. "Big data will be the state of computing. We're not going to separate it out," he said.

During the panel, Vint Cerf, co-designer of the Internet and chief Internet evangelist at Google, warned that big data may not be as useful over time if it's not stored and handled properly. He warned of a "digital dark age" where older data is no longer interpretable because there's no record of what it is and how it was recorded. "It may no longer be readable as operating systems evolve," said Cerf.

A lot of the discussion focused on health care, which Rick Smolan, who is not only co-author of the book but is also the producer of the "Big Data" movie, said seemed to be the area impacting people the most.

David Needle

David Needle

Based in Silicon Valley, veteran technology reporter David Needle covers mobile, bi g data, and social media among other topics. He was formerly News Editor at Infoworld, Editor of Computer Currents...