An Interview with Rick Smolan

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We first met Rick Smolan six years ago. He was working on a book project called Blue Planet Run — an elaborate collection of photos and stories about our planet’s scarce water resources. He asked to use one of our photos from a well in Ethiopia in the first pages of the book, and we’ve been friends and fans of each other’s work ever since. Now, we’re excited to be a part of Rick’s next book project — The Human Face of Big Data. With this new venture, he’s set out to bring vast amounts of information to life through visual storytelling – something we know a lot about here at charity: water.

When the book first launched, Rick’s team donated $1 for every download of the Big Data App and raised $50,000 to fund clean water projects in Ethiopia. Next up, they’ve launched an iPad App on iTunes and 100% of the profits will support charity: water.

You can support charity: water projects by downloading the Big Data App for $2.99 here. 100% of the profits fund clean water projects around the world.

Here’s an inverview with Rick — he shared with us what it’s like to interpret Big Data for a living and how we can apply it to our work in the field.

How do you explain the concept of Big Data to the average person?

My 10 year-old son recently heard me speaking on the phone about this project and asked me asked me what Big Data is. I said, “Imagine if the whole human race had been looking through one eye for all of our existence and all of a sudden, scientists gave us the ability to open up a second eye. You’re not just getting more information, more data; you’re literally getting a whole new dimension. You’re getting depth and perspective, 3D vision. That’s what Big Data is, not simply more information but a new way to see or extract meaning from a sea of information.” Simply put, Big Data is giving us a brand new way to see things.

Why did you decide to donate 100% of the app’s profits to charity: water?

Our team was inspired by their efforts to raise awareness of the fact that one in nine people do not have access to a basic human need like clean, safe water. It seemed like an obvious choice to support charity: water by donating all proceeds of The Human Face of Big Data iPad app to their worthy cause. And the fact that 100% of our donation will directly fund projects in developing countries was a pull.

What was your overall goal in producing The Human Face of Big Data?

The ability to collect, analyze, triangulate and visualize vast amounts of data in real time is something the human race has never had before. This new set of tools–otherwise known as “Big Data”–has begun to emerge as a new approach to addressing some of the the world’s biggest challenges, and we thought this would be the perfect time to spark a thoughtful global conversation about a set of emerging technologies that could truly change the world.

You have also released an interactive iPad app to supplement the stories told in the book. Why was it important to you to use the iPad as another way to bring these stories to life?

The iPad has profoundly changed the ways people consume and experience content, and we felt it was important to take advantage of this exciting new medium in a way that hasn’t been done before. The Human Face of Big Data iPad app is one of the most innovative ways we’ve used technology to tell a story. It will feature all the stories in the book as well as interactive content that allows the reader to go deeper and learn even more about these compelling stories. The app costs $2.99 and is available for download (iTunes). 100% of profits from app downloads will be donated to charity: water.

Visual storytelling is very important to our work at charity: water. How did you come up with the photographs that appear in the book?

We spent months finding photographs and compiling assignments for professional photographers that we dispatched all around the world. The pictures have an amazing sense of intimacy – people in more than 30 countries are featured and in every case the theme is about how data, sometimes big and sometimes soon to be big, is touching such an astounding array of human life around the world today.

You can learn more about the Human Face of Big Data’s campaign for Ethiopia by visiting their mycharity: water profile at

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