Switch to Desktop Site

The new age of algorithms: How it affects the way we live

'Big Data' impacts how we work, elect our presidents, and play tennis. It also affects the way we're watched.

Monitor contributor Robert Lehrman discusses his Aug. 12 cover story with Pat Murphy of CSMonitor.com.
About these ads

They work a few hundred yards from one of the Library of Congress's most prized possessions: a vellum copy of the Bible printed in 1455 by Johann Gutenberg, inventor of movable type. But almost six centuries later, Jane Mandelbaum and Thomas Youkel have a task that would confound Gutenberg.

The researchers are leading a team that is archiving almost every tweet sent out since Twitter began in 2006. A half-billion tweets stream into library computers each day.

Their question: How can they store the tweets so they become a meaningful tool for researchers – a sort of digital transcript providing insights into the daily flow of history?

Thousands of miles away, Arnold Lund has a different task. Mr. Lund manages a lab for General Electric, a company that still displays the desk of its founder, Thomas Edison, at its research headquarters in Niskayuna, N.Y. But even Edison might need training before he'd grasp all the dimensions of one of Lund's projects. Lund's question:

How can power companies harness the power of data to predict which trees will fall on power lines during a storm – thus allowing them to prevent blackouts before they happen?

The work of Richard Rothman, a professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, is more fundamental: to save lives. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta predicts flu outbreaks, once it examines reports from hospitals. That takes weeks. In 2009, a study seemed to suggest researchers could predict outbreaks much faster by analyzing millions of Google searches.


Page 1 of 14