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Power to the People: How Data Democratization Is Enabling Consumers and Businesses to Make More Informed Decisions

05/16/2013 06:05 pm ET | Updated Jul 16, 2013
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As the Internet has grown, so has the sheer amount of available information. A reported 90 percent of the world's data has been created in just the last two years -- and the pace of data generation is only growing. Massive amounts of records now exist on all sorts of topics, from spending habits to medical records to facts about the world in which we live. The term "Big Data" is now commonly used to describe these huge databases, which are impossible to analyze or interpret with traditional tools.

The buzz around Big Data started nearly a decade ago, but until recently, access to this rich data has been incredibly limited. Only large enterprises with robust IT departments have had the capacity to store, manage, analyze, and process the treasure troves of information -- which span anything from consumer purchase behaviors to business intelligence.

With IT departments acting as the gatekeepers of the data, and end-users like sales and marketing teams at the mercy of their technical counterparts, the process of managing and analyzing the data was slow, frictional, and expensive. For the data to tell a story, it had to first pass through a layer of data scientists, who would then pass structured reports to end-users, who only then could draw some actionable insights.

In recent years, non-technical users have started gaining access to new tools to manage, analyze and draw actionable insights from the massive amounts of data, but access to these tools has largely remained at the enterprise level.

For the first time, however, data is now being distributed -- or 'democratized' -- outside of big enterprises. This shift is empowering all people -- regardless of technical prowess -- to have access to data to help make more informed decisions. The three companies below are leading the charge in data democratization, helping everyone from high-level executives to everyday consumers leverage the power of data.

Tableau: Spreading the power of analytics across the enterprise
Tableau Software Inc., which filed to go public last month, allows businesses to process and display data in visual reports without assistance from technical departments. Tableau makes it easy for end-users within an enterprise to transform Big Data into understandable and actionable insights; this in turn removes the technical layer previously needed to manage, process and interpret the data. Making Big Data accessible to an enterprise's end users makes an organization more agile -- removing excess layers of employee involvement, reducing the list of IT requests, and freeing up more technical departments to focus on things that actually move the needle.

During Tableau's IPO roadshow presentation, Christian Chabot -- the CEO and co-founder of Tableau -- explained how the company is democratizing data. "Our mission at Tableau Software couldn't be simpler," Chabot said:

"It's to help people see and understand data. We believe making it easy for people to see and understand data represents one of the great opportunities in computing this century. We believe there's a tremendous opportunity to help people answer questions, solve problems and generate meaning from data in a way that has never before been possible. And we believe there's an opportunity to put that power in the hands of a much broader population of people."

While Tableau focuses mainly on democratizing data within the enterprise -- removing IT departments as the central gatekeeper of the data -- other organizations like FindTheBest and Socrata are taking the idea of data democratization one step further: putting Big Data in the hands of consumers.

FindTheBest: Helping consumers leverage the power of data
FindTheBest is democratizing data in three key ways. First, FindTheBest is making public data more open, searchable and actionable. The comparisons on FindTheBest -- which range from Cars and Smartphones to Colleges and Ski Resorts -- aggregate millions of data points from across the Web to present consumers with a complete package of relevant information with which to make informed decisions.

Second, through sister sites like FindTheData, government data -- usually buried in zip files on governmental websites -- is made open and easily searchable for the first time. Information in the Job Salaries or Campus Safety comparisons, for example, compile massive amounts of data from governmental databases that are neither optimized for search nor made actionable through the use of tools to sort or filter the data. FindTheData compiles this data in a structured and highly searchable format, and also layers in smart filters that enable consumers to slice and dice the data.

Third, FindTheBest is making proprietary data free and open. For example, FindTheCompany -- another site within the FindTheBest network -- licenses proprietary data from a variety of companies and makes it available to consumers free of charge. Like FindTheBest, FindTheCompany is easy to use. Even users with no technical background can sort, filter, and compare information on more than 30 million businesses.

"We're turning traditional Big Data into Small Data by presenting it in a way consumers can understand. What specific pieces of information do people need to choose the right college? The best insurance? A family dog?" said FindTheBest Founder Kevin O'Connor. "We take all the available data, organize it, structure it, and make it what we call 'consumable,' so consumers and businesses can make data-driven decisions.

Socrata: Democratizing access to governmental data for the masses
Socrata, the platform for public data discovery, is democratizing governmental databases -- making them transparent and open. The platform allows people to create, filter, and analyze charts and graphs that allow them to draw conclusions and gain insights into data that while perhaps previously open, was not accessible to the masses. Socrata gives consumers access to public data and also equips users with the tools they need to draw insights from the data.

"Socrata focuses on democratizing access to government data, and presenting it in a consumer-friendly experience for millions of people so they can put it to use in their daily lives," said Kevin Merritt. "Everything from 'How safe is my neighborhood?' to 'When is the next bus?' Government data needs to be as accessible and as usable as anything on Yelp or Amazon. That's how we improve quality of life and bring the government-citizen experience to the modern era."

An increasing amount of data lies waiting to be unlocked
The pace of data generation is only growing. According to an EMC study, the world's information is more than doubling every two years. At the same time, 99 percent of the world's data is not being analyzed and 96 percent of all data isn't easily accessible. Data for data's sake is powerless. It's only when end users are given access to the data to gain insights, see trends and make predictions that the data can actually tell a story. In this way, data becomes a bridge to knowledge.

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