Occasionally we see some learned organization counting the number of bytes of data that humans have produced to date. And I've been known to scoff at these projections.
Seriously folks, even if you think that the number is 789.332 yottabyes on some given day--let's say today--the number is bigger tomorrow. And it gets bigger the next day. Even the rate of growth of the world's collective data is meaningless. Who would ever try to collect it all in one place and do something with it?
Oops. Someone actually is trying to collect all the data in the world and use it to peer into the future. Seriously. What's more, an organization called the European Commission is even willing to pump 1 billion euros into this dream.
The project is called the FutureICT Knowledge Accelerator and Crisis-Relief System, or FuturICT for short. FuturITC is building a Living Earth Platform. In the words of the FutureICT founders, the Living Earth Platform will be "a simulation, visualization, and participation platform to support decision making of policymakers, business people, and citizens."
I'm going to cast aside the question of whether or not they can actually gather up all of the world's data. That's another meaningless question. All they need is enough to do what they want to do. Let's just say for now that it encompasses all of the data feeds available to the projects researchers. Even so, it qualifies as the biggest of the big data projects out there.
And, what exactly do the founders of FuturICT want to do? Again in their words: "The ultimate goal of the FuturICT flagship project is to understand and manage complex global, socially interactive systems, with a focus on sustainability and resilience."
Here's a practical example of what I think they're up to. Back in September, the journal "nature" reported a study that showed how applying data analytics to news stories over the last 10 years could have predicted the Arab Spring. It noted that the "tone" of news stories in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia was trending progressively more negative in these countries where leaders are historically deposed by public uprisings.
How FuturICT will actually gather and process all this data is a matter of intense debate that centers on an issue discussed by IT professionals for decades: to centralize or not to centralize. "Scientific American" reports that Dirk Helbing, FuturICT's founding father, prefers a centralized approach that consolidates systems, data feeds, and data. A decentralized model is also being put forward by John Wilbanks, VP of science for Creative Commons, who proposes a "data commons" approach powered by the Semantic Web.
As the founders of FuturICT point out, we know more about the universe than our own society. We don't have to invest billions to send spacecraft heavenward to get the data that could help us predict the future. We have yottabytes right here on planet Earth. All we have to do is mine it. Like the ancient Oracle at Delphi, we ask it questions, it gives us answers--but perhaps not the ones we want or ones we readily understand. Can we use FuturICT to make the world a better place? That may be the toughest question of all.