The Promise And Perils Of Really Big Data

First thing’s first—I encourage you to attend a special screening of The Human Face of Big Data at TPT on Tuesday, February 23 that includes a panel with the film’s creator and a gaggle of incredibly smart people. Sign up now—it’s free! See you there.


The Human Face of Big Data is a powerful and important new film premiering this month on PBS. It’s a necessary watch for anyone excited and/or concerned about data.

The term “digital exhaust” is now my new favorite term, and a perfect example of what the majority of us leave behind each and every single day. Data frames our lives. Where we swipe our debit card to buy groceries, where we connect to WiFi, where we make phone calls, what we order on Amazon, and even what we watch on PBS. These things are recorded in some way, and they allow someone—or something—to draw conclusions about who we are without even knowing our explicit identity.

These bits and bytes can be used to help us just as much as they can be used against us. One of the most incredible stories within the film sheds light on how babies develop their vocabulary. Two parents welcome their baby into its new home by recording everything happening over an extended period of time. Without giving too much away, they’re able to figure out when and where their shiny new human learned certain words. They realized that not only does repetition play a part in the absorption of language, but context is just as important. Without the data to see this, these new parents could have been stuck in an endless loop of attempted education.

Naturally, the film also touches on what’s happening when cell phone service providers and the NSA have seemingly open and uninterrupted access to our data. While not inherently a bad thing, there is plenty of concern surrounding a certain Bill of Rights and some level of privacy we’re entitled to as U.S. citizens.

The Human Face of Big Data premieres Wednesday, February 24 at 10/9c on your local PBS station.