Technology & AI

TEDx Conference Attendees Explore the Future World of Data

Data, its uses, abuses, influence, and future possibilities — was the focus of attention for sold-out TEDx conference attendees.

May 01, 2011

| by Anne Gregor

The audience included venture capitalists, startup founders, alumni, Silicon Valley veterans, and students eager to learn more about the increasingly varied influence and opportunities in modern life offered by data. Thousands more from around the world tuned in via streaming video on JustinTV and YouTube on May 14 for the day-long invitation-only event co-hosted by the business school’s Center for Social Innovation in partnership with HealthTap, founded by Ron Gutman, MBA ‘05.

Some 30 speakers with interests in health, crisis management, education, trend analysis, social change, multimedia art, music, and data visualization shared their knowledge and thoughts about future developments under the theme “Living By Numbers.” Several spoke to the issues of privacy and philosophical questions surrounding the collection and buildup of datasets that are proliferating, with or without the public’s knowledge.

In his opening remarks, Garth Saloner, dean of the Stanford Graduate School of Business, said: “one of the most exciting truths about the emergence and availability of tremendous amounts of data is that it enables us, perhaps for the first time, to discern huge, new opportunities for impact.” He encouraged those in the room and watching from outside to “gain insight into how to make the world a better place.”

Patrick Meier, cofounder of the International Network of Crisis Mappers, described how data technologies are making a difference today. The network of pre-screened crisis mappers have helped agencies such as the United Nations deliver supplies in Haiti more efficiently and tracked developments in Libya. The content is also available to the public.

“Having a good map is as good as having your own helicopter,” said Meier, who is currently a visiting fellow at Stanford University’s Program on Liberation Technologies.

Toolkits for many of the speakers include sensors, feedback loops, and crowd-sourcing. Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief of Wired magazine, lauded technology that allows individuals to track their personal health data 24 hours a day and compare their data against that of friends and strangers.

“Technology that connects us to our own life data enables us to make significant improvements in our lives,” said Anderson, who, by example, is encouraging the gathering and sharing of data about his health.

Health strategist Chris Hogg advocates physicians prescribing data collection devices as they would drugs-home blood pressure monitors, for example-as a step toward changing the relationship between physician and patient and improving the quality of available information.

Bernardo Huberman, director of the Social Computing Lab at Hewlett-Packard, introduced research focused on social media. By tracking tweets and other social media mentions related to a handful of movies it was possible to predict the films’ box office dollars. “Where attention goes, money follows,” he said. However, he cautioned that attention becomes harder to attract when everyone has a megaphone.

A word of caution came from philosophy professor and ethical insider at Google, Damon Horowitz, who said society lacks a moral operating system for dealing with data. “We know more about mobile phones than a moral framework,” he said.

As a first step, Horowitz asked each member of the audience to consider an ethical decision made recently and reflect on how they came to that decision. Then he asked them to explain to a friend why they made that decision. “Becoming more sensitive to the human situation through considering multiple viewpoints is a first step to making ethical decisions.”

To Mitch Kapor, the father of the electronic spreadsheet, the important data of today is about educating the country’s youth, and Kapor is deeply disturbed by what he sees — a growing divide between the haves and the have-nots in terms of wealth and access to a quality education at a time when global competitiveness requires an increasingly skilled labor force.

George Legrady, professor of Interactive Media at UC-Santa Barbara, and Eric Rodenbeck, founder and creative director of Stamen, are focused on illustrating human behavior graphically. Legrady’s electronic art projects collate and illustrate graphical input from individuals-for example patrons who borrow material from the Seattle Central Library. The visitor can see and be influenced by what others are taking from the library shelves. Stamen transfers large datasets, such as San Francisco taxi trips and reported crimes, into maps that help administrators locate trouble spots and understand the city better.

“I love the idea creativity,” said Pat Burt, CEO of Palo Alto-based medical startup Vascular Access Technologies, one of the high-tech executives in the audience. “I was glad to see challenges to the assumption that data is a panacea.” That Stanford is the location for TEDx is also an asset, he said. “The Stanford name is a magnet for getting great speakers and attendees and people watching the simulcast,” he said.

In summing up, Thomas Goetz, executive editor of Wired magazine, called on the audience and speakers to make the data disappear. “We need to give people access to the information in a way that changes how they think about their lives without getting into the numbers,” and, in the words of co-host Ron Gutman, everyone should ask “How can numbers be used to innovate for social change and improve our lives and the lives of others?”

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