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Kal Penn talks National Geographic’s new big data show

From pizza metrics to drugs and crime, big data takes center stage on the new series.


Rae Votta


Posted on Mar 16, 2015   Updated on May 29, 2021, 7:20 am CDT

Would you expect grasshoppers to be the best way to produce efficient protein, or that an uptick in STDs in Florida can be traced to a retirement home in Florida?

Kal Penn is ready to take the fear out of big data with his new National Geographic Channel show, The Big Picture With Kal Penn.

Using his mix of public and private sector experience as both a lauded actor an a former associate director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, Penn said the show aims to put big data into a human perspective.

“We wanted to take these big data concepts and find human interest stories within them to explore in a documentary style,” Penn said.

While Penn says he had some familiarity with the concept of big data, he didn’t really dive deep into the topic until taking part in the show with National Geographic Channel.

“As we started developing the series … and were putting together the individual episodes, right around that time there was a lot of news narrative about things like the NSA, and a lot of chatter on Twitter about things like privacy,” he explained. “We all thought that was particularly interesting because it seemed to paint a more nefarious picture of things like big data than what we thought was a more complete picture. Certainly those are stories we should explore and look at. I felt like that makes fantastic cable news more than it makes reality.”

Penn points out that we may not be reading all the terms of service, but we are agreeing that these companies can collect data on us.

“We thought why not look at the broader picture of what big data means and how we interact with it,” he explained.

The show drills down on different data points, drawing its topics from the data sets available, not, as many would guess, coming up with ideas and looking for data that supports a theory. The show uncovers surprising statistics, like the state with the highest drug addiction rate (Vermont) or which state consumes the most pizza (Florida, not New York or Illinois like one might assume).

“The pizza was the biggest shocker,” he explained. “I grew up in New Jersey, and I live in New York. Who prides themselves on having the best pizza? It’s us.”

Penn, who had previously been to Austin for the release of Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay, said making the trek to SXSW for National Geographic is much different than for an iconic stoner comedy.

“I love that I can learn about both sides of South By,” he laughed.”That was the big stoner film premiere, and nobody was sober around you. This is like, everybody is sober; it’s an educational program.”

The Big Picture With Kal Penn premieres March 30, at 9pm on National Geographic Channel.

Screengrab via DailyDot/YouTube

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*First Published: Mar 16, 2015, 6:04 pm CDT