Democratized Data and the Missing Interface
The Wolfram Data Summit is an invitation-only gathering in Washington, DC which brings together the leaders of the world’s largest data repositories. Professors, Chief Privacy Officers, Research Scientists, Chief Technology Officers, Data Architects, and Directors from leading organizations like UCSD, the U.S. Census Bureau, Thomson Reuters, Cornell, and Orbitz (among many others) come to present on the challenges and opportunities they face in the data community and to discuss their work.
The Summit reaches a broad range of innovators from virtually every discipline. The format of the summit promotes collaboration among participants across multiple domains, including medical, scientific, financial, academic and government. Presenters integrate topics with discussion on open government data, data in the media, and linguistics.
We frequently work with clients that own or manage large data repositories; through our work with them we build applications that allow their users to easily access and learn from the data. Through continued exposure to the world of big data, we’ve realized that although a few large firms utilize tools like data mining and data analyses to make better business decisions, the information is generally under-used and often not used at all by smaller firms.
Data is Gold
One the most strikingly apparent details that Marc and Jurgen gleaned from the Summit was that data and content owners truly care about the accuracy of their data. All of the presenters conveyed a sanctity toward cultivating quality data.
What results from the work of these scrupulous and discerning leaders is a vast collection of (high-quality and accurate) data that can be used by anyone to make more strategic decisions involving their health, finances, or education, by business owners to learn more about their niche markets and identify trends and potential solutions to common problems. Data repositories are used by groups to predict and release information about everything from natural disasters and disease outbreaks to commute patterns and high-crime neighborhoods. This begs the question, “If data can be so useful to us, why are large organizations cutting funding to data projects such as Census.gov and Data.gov?” (Read this article from WhiteHouse.gov for a look at some of the ways Data.gov has been used in the last three years.)
The Experience Layer of Big Data
Jurgen and Marc identified that one of the solutions to the diminishing use of these repositories lies in the user experience layer of the data. In most cases data repositories offer large data sets in Excel or CSV files and while this format is appropriate for their expert audience, average users don’t know how to get valuable information and stories out of plain data sets. On the bright side, this is a problem that’s easy enough to fix.
Tell the story, guide the user to discover insights with a user friendly web layer.
Data must be easily and intuitively accessible; otherwise, it goes unutilized. There is no question that aggregation and maintenance of data is beneficial for everyone from the CEO of a mutual funds company to the admissions office of a University, to the entrepreneur of a tech startup, to the person choosing between treatment options for an ill loved one.
In the age of Web 2.0 there is no reason for big or little data to be silo’d behind unusable interfaces. Owners of data repositories can work alongside UX/UI experts to launch a new wave of data accessibility. At Intridea, we are obsessed with the user experience, but we also see the whole picture – we build applications to allow users to seamlessly access information they need. Jurgen notes, “A good user experience begins and ends with usable data.”
As designers, our job is as much about the aesthetics as it is about the functionality and accessibility to the product or data in question. WolframAlpha.com is a good case study of what’s possible when centralized data is made available to the average user through the power of a knowledge engine and intuitive interface. A simple query for “speed of light” or “heart disease risk” returns computational details on a macro and micro level.
What We’ve Learned
Data truly is gold. But it will waste away in mines if we do not create the appropriate tools for people to harvest and utilize it. If data owners can be encouraged to work with design experts, and if designers can be inspired to assist on these valuable data projects we can bridge the gap between the data and the user and unleash the inherent value in democratized data.