Talking Data

Documentary examines benefits of big data

Use of big data among businesses continues to accelerate, and a new documentary looking at the benefits of this trend has drawn a mixture of praise and criticism.

The PBS documentary The Human Face of Big Data, which aired last month, sparked a lot of conversation on social media, and it's not hard to see why. The documentary provides a general-interest look at the benefits of big data, and suggests that big data is having a major impact on nearly every industry, including retail, manufacturing and marketing.

But what did the documentary get right, and what did it get wrong in its assessment of big data? To answer that question, this edition of Talking Data examines the program through a critical lens. At air time, The Human Face of Big Data received both positive and negative responses. The headline of a piece in the Wall Street Journal discussing the film declared "The big data future has arrived." It touted many of the positive uses of big data discussed in the documentary, including identifying problematic respiratory patterns in infants and developing new understandings of how babies acquire language.

On the other hand, a column in Forbes dismissed the film as "a paean to information technology and computerization." The column took a dim view of the documentary's at times wide-eyed enthusiasm over the benefits of big data and its power to reshape business practices and our understanding of the world.

The truth is likely somewhere in the middle. As discussed in this podcast, the film does a good job of identifying positive uses of data, but it also misses several opportunities to talk about the risks of applying big data analytics to sensitive personal data and how the benefits of big data are not always evenly distributed. Listen to the audio to hear more about this much-discussed documentary that could a long way toward shaping popular perceptions of big data. 

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This was first published in March 2016

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