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Nidhi Subbaraman

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A Nosy Smartphone App Wants Your Data

A project called The Human Face of Big Data collects data points via smartphones, and lets you find “data doppelgangers.”

  • October 1, 2012

On Sunday evening, before I put the mushrooms on for dinner, I sat down for an intimate chat with a friend’s Android phone.

I answered questions about my sleeping habits, about how well I knew my neighbors, and whether I believed in love at first sight. With every detail I shared, I learned about a larger connected anonymous community.

Compared to a lot of others, I napped more and knew my neighbors less. But I was also like them in many ways: I got my news from the Internet, am woken up in the morning with the wail of my alarm clock (and not a rooster), occasionally fuss about my weight, and believe that if you marry somebody, you ought to love them at least a little.

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This barrage of questions came from an app I downloaded from the Google Play store. It’s part of a project called The Human Face of Big Data, and behind the cheeky questions is a larger plan hatched by a guy called Rick Smolan.

Smolan, a former photographer and journalist for TIME, Life, and National Geographic magazines runs the Against All Odds Productions which has produced the epic “Day in the Life” photography series. Smolan sends a swarm of photographers to document a country, or a topic, or an idea for a day, and turns the end product into a book in the series.

Smolan’s latest source of inspiration has been “big data,” and the scores of schemes that derive patterns and trends by regarding connected humans as walking data mines. “Imagine the whole human race has been looking through one eye … until 18 months ago we opened a second eye,” he once said, “Suddenly we have a three-dimensional view of things that are going on.” But more than just the data itself, Smolan is intrigued by what that data can tell us about ourselves.

Which is where that nosy app comes in. As part of Smolan’s latest photo project called “The Human Face Of Big Data,” he’s inviting Android and iOS users everywhere to answer a few questions about themselves and their daily lives. As the book’s interactive element, the app prods you share nugget-sized data bits about your life, personal stuff, sometimes: to take a picture of the object that brings you luck, or to share where your soul would go when you die. You’d then get a chance to see how your beliefs and habits compared with a larger community of connected people elsewhere.

The app told me that a little over 200,000 questions had been answered, but I couldn’t tell how many other humans I was sharing my story with, or learning from. The app was slightly glitchy, too. It had trouble taking my photograph and connecting me to what it calls my “data doppelganger”–the person with whom the app claimed I shared the most habits and traits.

Also, as of Sunday night, it’s only the Android community that’s had access to the quiz. The iOS app has yet to hit the App Store, so there’s plenty more to be data waiting to be unlocked.

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