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Free the Data: Breaking Down Silos With Google; Liberating Spreadsheets, Collaboration Beyond the Cell

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"With all the power of 21st century collaboration technology, nothing to date has tamed the massive amounts of disparate water information locked away in diverse database systems," reports Aubrey Parker, our colleague at Circle of Blue in her article, "Google Brings Water Data to Life."

Google's new Fusion Tables, released last week, represents the emergence of new data organizing tools that have the potential to liberate sequestered information and make it accessible on a scale that's never been seen before.

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See full coverage of Fusion Tables and a tutorial here.

We hear so much about "silo'd" information, data that's locked in different formats, trapped in textbooks, sequestered to rest forever in static PDFs. Ever try to collaborate with a spreadsheet? Keep track of comments? Even align columns? But what if the world could share its information, track it and provide ongoing feedback online and without complex database systems? Solicit and manage comments from peers?

"There is an enormous amount of water data out there, but data by itself doesn't tell the story; data are only numbers," said Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute.

Fusion Tables is yet another indicator of the velocity, accessibility and democratization of the accelerating data revolution.

Circle of Blue and the Pacific Institute participated with Google in the design and development of Fusion Tables. Here, where we report on the global water crisis, we're already using it to make comparisons and share large data sets. "The biggest potential is to build an ecosystem of data on the Web," Alon Halevy, the senior Google engineer who led the Fusion Tables development team, told us. "This means making it easy for the people to upload, to merge data sets, to discuss the data, to create visualizations and then to take these visualizations and put them elsewhere on the Web."

The result is a powerful research and story-telling tool -- equally accessible to journalists, scientists, students and the public.

"We need to develop tools that make it possible for people without too much technical expertise to play around with their data, explore it and use it to answer questions that they have about their data," Halevy said.

A few weeks ago at the World Innovation Forum, futurist Paul Saffo and I spoke about this massive shift in data accessibility. The secret isn't in the volume, it's in how we use it. "We can become victims of our own measurements. In the past, we weren't measuring the right things," Saffo said.

So Fusion Tables, and the inevitable flood of other tools, will help us not only learn to measure the right things, we'll find context, community and meaning in our numbers. We'll also have more informed discussions about emerging trends that affect everything from water crises to fiscal policy.

Not quite as dramatic as the digital vortices of The Matrix. But we know the answers are out there. We have only to see them in new ways.

Trinity: I know why you're here, Neo. I know what you've been doing... why you hardly sleep, why you live alone, and why night after night, you sit by your computer...I know because I was once looking for the same thing.... I was looking for an answer. It's the question that drives us, Neo. It's the question that brought you here. You know the question, just as I did.

Neo: What is the Matrix?

Trinity: The answer is out there, Neo, and it's looking for you, and it will find you if you want it to.

-- The Matrix