Former Amazon chief scientist talks big data potential at semester's first University Lecture

Andreas Weigend spoke to issues about data and its effect on education, the workplace and health care.

Andreas Weigend has a positive outlook when it comes to the future of big data. Having the information to help people make better choices on what to buy, on how to interact with others, on how to travel, on how to learn—that’s exactly what intrigues him, he said.

“What would you do if you built the platform to help people make better decisions?” Weigend said. “What can we do with data — that’s what drives me. That’s what makes me happy.”

Photo: Emily De Vito
“I want those data of people — in many cases, by the people — to also be data for the people."
- Andreas Weigend

Weigend, former chief scientist at Amazon, big data expert and professor at Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley, spoke Tuesday evening at Hendricks Chapel. As the first speaker this semester for the University Lectures Series, Weigend drew a large crowd despite the cold temperatures and spoke about data and its effect on education, the workplace and health care.

“In one day, we now produce more data than we did in the year 2000,” Weigend said. Donning a gray jacket, jeans and Google Glass, his energetic demeanor kept him walking across the stage just as much as it kept the audience leaning forward and captivated.

The data readily available to companies, employers and individuals can be both positive and negative, Weigend said. He highlighted the perks of geolocation — sharing where you are and where you’re going — and the influences of online relationships, such as how people use Facebook to discover the world through other’s eyes. He also discussed the use of sensors and how tracking your steps and your sleep can lead to changing the path your day takes.

“I want those data of people — in many cases, by the people — to also be data for the people,” Weigend said.

During the question-and-answer portion of the lecture, audience members were asked to stand and share what they’d like to do if they had all the information in the world, or what they couldn’t be doing without data.

Mary Salmonsen, an English and textual studies and television, radio and film senior, suggested finding a way to make use of all the information generated by citizen journalism.

“I thought this was very interesting, just because of the data we make every day,” Salmonsen said. “I don’t know if I really share his optimism, but it is kind of infectious.”

Other audience members brought up ideas about sharing transportation, finding out about monetary sponsors of government officials and effectively tracking food and water distribution. Others expressed their fears about the government having access to facial recognition software and E-ZPass data, and the invasion of privacy at airports.

“Do we have a choice? And I think the answer is no, we don’t have a choice anymore to fly anonymously,” Andreas responded.

Esther Gray, special assistant to the vice chancellor and coordinator of the University Lecture Series, said when choosing guests to speak, she was immediately attracted to a specific piece in Weigend’s lengthy list of credentials — his position as chief scientist at Amazon.

“Every time I open up Amazon, there’s $400 worth of Transformers and Ninja Turtles in my cart,” Gray said. Her 6-year-old grandson knows how to use her computer — and Amazon — and put toys he wants in her shopping cart.

“His brain is now wired. My brain isn’t wired to think that way,” Gray said. “We need to know where our data’s going.”

Live Blog Andreas Weigend live at Syracuse University

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