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A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Words. Really?

As technology advances, we ought to consider updating our adages.


Pictures no longer compete for written words on a page but instead vie to occupy the same setof bits and bytes. Because of this shift, the relative worth of an image is now of much bigger concern. Is a friend’s Facebook photo really worth the millions of bytes of data it takes to download? When it comes to video, at least, a picture really is worth a thousand words. We can’t even compare a video file with an eBook of words and images as far as the Megabytes a video file guzzles. Storing and processing data isn’t free.

Is it really worth each time when someone posts a picture of the new dress or of  their breakfast cereal on Facebook or Instagram?

It is amazing but according to Big Data, the answer is yes. Big Data isn’t about any individual posting. Instead, it’s about analyzing the aggregate. While one dress photo doesn’t reveal much about your friend, a thousand dress photos from women across the country can reveal fashion trends, spending habits, and more.

Big Data doesn’t always reveal blatant patterns.Instead, sophisticated software algorithms go over collections of data in order to reveal subtle trends that can help us understand our world. Perfecting this sort of meta-data- analysis shouldn’t just save money or help target advertisements. It should save lives. When we apply the techniques we use to spot trends in cereal photos to things like x-rays, CT scans, and other medical charts, we’re able to identify health issues more accurately and help physicians prescribe the best treatments.


About two and a half decades ago, my son was very badly hurt in a traffic accident in New York City. He was traveling by bicycle near Columbia University when he was struck by a cab from behind on a busy street
and was thrown up in the air and then, of course, to the ground. An 18-wheeler giant truck was following too closely and was unable to avoid crushing a thigh of one of his legs and completely tearing apart the veins in that thigh. His bicycle lay all tangled up next to him showing the severity of the accident. In the aftermath of the accident, he was delivered to the ICU in St. Luke’s hospital. Doctors had to use more than 34 tubes to carry fluids in and out of his body. Each of these tubes had instruments that measured little pieces of information about the assault on my son’s body. Any point of data from any one of those instruments wasn’t valuable on its own, but the physicians and nurses could analyze them in aggregate to form a comprehensive picture of my son’s survival.

Twenty-five years ago, our technology wasn’t as good as it is now.

Instead of relying on machine algorithms to keep my son alive, we trusted in the experience of trained human medical professionals. Their “algorithms”; were honed based on years of study, experience and enhanced with human intuition. My son was saved by this sort of organic Big Data analysis – machines and humans with collected knowledge of experience in their brains and human compassion. When similar tragedies occur today, the watchful eyes of a nurse are augmented with automated analysis. Medical professionals are still presented with the data to form their own conclusions, but a machine helps highlight important information and offers suggestions to keep things on track. In the medical field, we can use multiple data streams to form a picture.

These pictures are worth far more than a thousand words.

They help medical professionals save human lives. Paired with training, experience, and intuition, Big Data helps our physicians and nurses make the right decisions to keep their patients healthy and safe. We should never undermine the human intuition, compassion and think we can replace all decision making of human life only with big data.

Humans have hearts. Big Data doesn’t.

And this is coming from an analyst who has been working relentlessly with data for close to five decades.

Shaku Atre
1 Comment
  • Posted at 6:15 am, November 7, 2017

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