Data and the Human Spirit

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Data: Cold, impersonal, intellectual, left-brained, inquiring.
Human spirit: Hot, personal, emotional, right-brained, inspiring.

What do they have to do with each other? Disparate though they may seem, nearly every important advance in the annals of human knowledge has arisen at the intersection of data and the human spirit.

There are countless examples throughout history of people who have exhibited incredible courage to collect, analyze, understand, and communicate the implications of new information. Just a few from the past include Galileo, Marie Curie, and Charles Darwin. From the present: Jane Goodall, Stephen Hawking, and Sylvia Earle. From the future: Who knows? Maybe Parker Liautaud will be one of them!


The 19-year-old geology and geophysics major at Yale University is starting off on his quest to be the youngest – and fastest – individual to walk to the South Pole in an unsupported Coast-to-Pole attempt. And he has the credentials, having traveled to the North Pole three times by age 18.

The Willis Resilience Expedition will kick off on the Ross Ice Shelf next month, sponsored by Willis, the world’s oldest insurance broker, and by EMC. Parker will be walking 12 hours per day in temperatures between -18°F and -76°F for a total of 397 miles not only to set a record, but also to deploy and test a new type of weather station, survey static isotope levels in surface snow, and collect tritium data for more accurate dating of snow and ice cores, all in service of a better understanding of climate change.

The science is fascinating (nerdy, but fascinating) and if you’re interested, you should check out EMC’s DataLab to view data visualizations that put Parker’s Antarctic adventure in context. But perhaps just as important will be the conversation he inspires.

And that’s the first reason that EMC has chosen to sponsor Parker. Climate change is one of the greatest material sustainability issues for EMC. After all, most of the energy used to run our products at our customers’ sites is still generated from fossil fuels.

But more importantly, it is an issue of unprecedented proportions that is facing us all. Every nation will be affected – if they aren’t already being affected – by climate change. There are no communities whose children and grandchildren will avoid its long-term impact. We are hoping that stories like Parker’s will make it personal enough to turn up the volume on climate change discussions, bringing more minds and spirits together to innovate solutions for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to climate change.

EMC’s other primary purpose is to highlight the role of data and data analytics in understanding complex systems such as the Earth’s climate. The power of Big Data is that even when systems are too complex to fully understand all the linkages and causal pathways, Big Data can still reveal patterns that help us understand and predict behavior. The data Parker is collecting will be used by glaciologists, climatologists, data scientists, and others to gain greater insight into how our climate has behaved in the past and how it is responding to changes that have been taking place since the Industrial Revolution.

The third reason may not have been conscious, but I have to think we were inspired by the cultural fit. Parker clearly believes in the power of the individual to make change. He is courageous, energetic, smart, and passionate. And maybe just a teeny bit crazy. In short, he reminds us of ourselves at EMC.

Data and the human spirit. What do they have to do with each other? Everything!

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