Data has always been with us. But you certainly can find a spike in the use of the word “data” in the last 75 years to coincide with the “Information Age,” computers and the Net.

The Latin word “data” is the plural of  the rarely used”datum.” It is a bit of a word oddity as it is most commonly used in the singular, as a mass noun (like “information”, “sand” or “rain”).

We generate so much data – facts and statistics collected together for reference or analysis – that we have to come up with interesting ways to describe the amount.

Every two days the human race is now generating as much data as was generated from the dawn of humanity through 2003.

We are exposed to as much information in a day as our 15th century ancestors were exposed to in a lifetime.

In the first day of a baby’s life, the human race generates 70 times the information contained in the Library of Congress.

Those examples come from a film, “The Human Face of Big Data”  that discusses things like “Big Data,” a word that was barely used a few years ago but now works its way into our lives in obvious and unseen ways.

There is much in the film about data visualization using the streams of data that come from our phones, web activities, satellites, sensors and the GPS car units, cameras and smart phones we own.

“Datum” is Latin meaning literally “something given,’” (a form of dare “give”).  I find that origin interesting because we give so much data to others intentionally and unintentionally. Every time I post on this or any blog, on Twitter or Facebook, or sign up for an online account, I give data away. Others use that data, often to make money, sometimes to do something good.

The film calls all our connected devices a kind of “planetary nervous system.”  The possibilities for ways to help humanity with the challenges of things like pollution, hunger, and illness, but we are also in the age of Edward Snowden and the NSA and data access has a cost in privacy.

Rather than drop into the abyss of the loss of privacy, I’m more interested in what big data might do to improve our lives. But that privacy issue is tough to get past.

One part of the film looks at Deb Roy and his MIT colleagues who wanted to examine how children acquire language. Deb Roy and his wife decided to give a lot of data about their newborn son for the sake of that research. Privacy? they put cameras in the ceiling in each room of their home and recorded every moment of their lives for the next two years.

When my sons were babies, my wife and I recorded in a book all their first word attempts and actual words. We are both language teachers and it was fun and educational. But we didn’t make our data public or add it to any database. Is that safe or selfish?

http://player.pbs.org/viralplayer/2365662310

Advertisements