800K #Sandy-grams Showed Systrom Instagram Is “Going To Need To Be A Big Data Company”

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800,000 Instagrams were tagged [Hurricane] #Sandy, and Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom thinks that makes it the most digitally captured event in history. But “how do we mine all these photos, make sense of them so you can consume the most interesting photos about Sandy?” he asked today at GigaOm’s RoadMap conference. His conclusion was “We’re going to need to be a big data company.”

Systrom says Instagram’s focus is on “making meaning of all the data coming in, and improving the experience of curating.” For example, he said that there were only 85,000 #SuperBowl Instagrams, compared to the 800,000 #SandyGram. People can’t consume 800,000 photos, but they still want to pull valuable information from them.

He gave an example of how Instagram might one day be able to help “if you’re in New York and want to know what gas stations have gas.” That means both photo recognition, but also natural-language processing. Systrom also hinted at “photo location trends” that show where the most Instagrams are currently being taken.

Luckily, Instagram was acquired by Facebook, a company that’s gotten very serious about big data. It’s now taking in 2.5 billion pieces of content and 500 terabytes of data every day, and is using it to refine products and illuminate trends as they emerge. Facebook might be able to lend some data scientists to its famously lean little brother.

If Instagram can successfully become a big data company, it could further a major shift in how people consume the world around them. Systrom said digital devices and social media made it so with Sandy. “Instead of feeling like you were far away watching on TV, people were participating in real time. This shows a stark change.”

And just because Twitter is launching photo filters and Facebook has added them through its Camera app, Systrom says, “None of those things threaten Instagram, because Instagram is a community, not a filters app.”