Silicon Valley Watcher - Former FT journalist Tom Foremski reporting from the intersection of technology and media

Eric Berlow: 'Big Data Is Controlled By Big Business' - Making Data Vibrant And Public

Posted by Tom Foremski - September 5, 2012

Eric Berlow, an ecologist and network scientist, sketches a flowchart to illustrate what happens in the lifecycle of publicly shared data.

By Intel Free Press

Ecologist turned network scientist Eric Berlow is tapping top experts to make public data more useful, meaningful and accessible.

Eric Berlow plans to catalyze and democratize big data.

Berlow is dead serious about it. He believes big data is controlled by big business when it should be openly available to the public.

"What if there was a system in place that encouraged people to share so they could make a bigger impact in the world?" he asks. "I'd like to help launch a decentralized, egalitarian data revolution that improves life for humankind."

For many, big data, which describes data sets too large and complex to work with using available database management tools, means information overload or spreadsheet number crunching. It's something that only big businesses, scientific researchers or data junkies are able to process in their quest to find hidden meaning or spot trends.

That view needs to change, according to Berlow.

In fact, he sees the growing tsunami of information as a threat if people ignore it. Berlow wants the public to tap into the potential of what researchers dub the secret life of data. If they have access to it, he believes, big data might help them live better lives or even save the planet.

Vibrant Data...

To help give more people that access and make sense of it, Berlow is working on the Vibrant Data Project. Inspired by the use of Facebook and Twitter in the Arab Spring popular uprisings, the intent of the project is to help people collectively simplify complex problems using big data.

The World Bank equated Vibrant Data to "a neural net" that will "require us to think differently about problem solving. To thrive in such an environment will require collaborative tools and skills."

Berlow may be best known for his 2010 TED Talk "How Complexity Leads to Simplicity," but he's more than just a YouTube sensation. He earned a Ph.D. from Oregon State University, completed postdoctoral work at UC Berkeley and has published in Science and Nature.

"The more you step back and embrace complexity, the better chance you have of finding simple answers," Berlow says of his big picture approach.

He's used it to create a crowdsourced map of how we can democratize data. It's based on insights Berlow gathered from more than 50 experts.

That input helped him identify essential elements of a big data system that could benefit: digital data literacy, trust, open platform for sharing and easy access.

Barlow joins Berlow...

"Crowdsourcing data exploration is what a lot of people are looking at as the future," said John Perry Barlow of the Electronic Frontier Foundation in a video interview about Vibrant Data.

Barlow, the iconic former Grateful Dead lyricist and cyber liberties activist, is one of many working with Berlow on the Vibrant Data Project.

Other TED fellows and such experts as Sun Microsystems co-founder Bill Joy and Jean-Baptiste Michel of the Harvard Institute for Quantitative Social Science are working on the effort, which is a collaboration between Berlow's Tru North Labs, The Gathering Think Tank, Brainvise and Intel Labs.

Big Data Literacy

"This data revolution can topple dictators or empower them with better surveillance," said Berlow. "It can broaden economic opportunity for more people or it could be used to consolidate wealth into the hands of a few."

Each day, 2.5 quintillion bytes of data is being created each day by mobile phones, social media sites, online shopping, climate sensors and through other digital means according to IBM estimates.

Put another way, 90 percent of the world's data was created just in the last two years.

"Today we are creating lots of new public information even just walking around with our phones," said Berlow, referring to location and content shared from people's devices while connected to wireless networks and the Internet.

"But most of it is controlled by companies like Apple, Facebook and Google. I don't even know what my data looks like to these companies. We are the data and we don't always benefit from sharing it."

If he gets the algorithms and essential processes right, Berlow believes a vibrant data system could bring people important insights that today remain hidden or inaccessible.

With access to the world's data, people's collective intelligence could help solve economic, health and environmental crises.

"Data flows like energy flows through the food web," Berlow said. "We're trying to identify all the moving parts and understand it like an ecosystem to identify the critical species with the most impact."

Explaining Vibrant Data


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