While it remains the primary practical concern for IT shops, modern data in its many-structured forms now also intrigues a new generation of evangelists looking to spread data analytics more widely in businesses -- and society in general.
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At last week's Summit 2013 User Conference held in Orlando, Fla., by business intelligence and data management software vendor Information Builders Inc., both the here-and-now and futuristic voices of data were heard. The event showed scenes from a journey from long-ago 4GL tools to HTML5 desktop apps and beyond.
"Our relationship with data has changed," Jer Thorp, a New York-based artist, educator and data-engagement entrepreneur, told attendees. Thorp, who served for two-plus years as "data artist in residence" at The New York Times, pointed to the ever-growing torrent of information that confronts everyone, saying new approaches are needed to deal with it.
Continually sorting data based on its quality is now a necessity for all of us, at work and outside of it, according to the bearded, t-shirted Thorp. "Data triage is something we have to do every day," he said. In addition, the data coming at us today often is hard to understand. The trouble is that too much of it just "looks like numbers," Thorp mused.
He then proceeded to show his audience highly interactive data graphics of tweet streams that resembled immersive data visualizations, somewhat akin to scenes from the sci-fi film Minority Report in which Tom Cruise uses "data gloves" to query 3-D displays that show swarming data sets. The message was that in the future, art and science may come together more effectively to help people sort through big data feeds.
Thorp said new data visualization processes can enable positive change in society by uncovering insightful patterns in behaviors, but that wider proliferation of data will require a new view of data ethics and ownership. His treatise was thought-provoking.
What would Jobs do?
Another bearded "Ger" -- though in his case, one replete with tie -- also spoke about data to the Orlando crowd. That was Gerry Cohen, president and CEO of Information Builders. He pledged to help customers build systems that can "deliver information needed by all of the people to make better decisions." Considering Cohen's track record -- few observers doubt he passed up chances to sell the company along the way -- it is a pledge worth listening to.
Having co-founded the company in 1975, it is fair to say Cohen has a long view. When he started out, Information Builders was about a 4GL, a nonprocedural language and development environment intended to work at a high level of abstraction and reduce programming complexity, especially for building reports based on database queries.
Others took that same 4GL path, including competitor Cognos, now part of IBM. Although the 4GL receded from view as Java and .NET came to the fore, 4GL technology continues to underpin advanced software in various niches, including search and business rules technology.
At the user conference, Cohen showed new HTML5 desktop apps that promise greater interactivity for analytics. These are quickly replacing Flash-based browser plug-ins if for no other reason than the fact that Apple's late CEO Steve Jobs didn't like Flash, which remains unsupported on iPhones and iPads.
Cohen's keynote was often humorous. For a depiction of sentiment analysis he showed tweets related to athletic apparel maker Lululemon's ill-fated see-through (though not on purpose) yoga pants. On another occasion, he asked the crowd, "Are you using Hadoop?" Not too many hands went up. "If you try using Hadoop ... good luck to you," Cohen said. Then he was quick to point out that Information Builders has a line of Hadoop connectors.
Free the data with HTML5
Cohen's efforts to free up data for all are different than those of data artists such as Thorp. From the beginning, a focal point of Information Builders' efforts was to create a simple development environment that did not require a gatekeeping DBA. While a general industry trend looks to share data beyond a small cadre of backroom professionals, evidence the company presented at its conference showed that there is still a ways to go and that organizations may have to fight an inbred tendency to hoard data at the top.
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Toward the end of the conference, Michael Corcoran, Information Builders' chief marketing officer, shared some research on the state of BI in organizations, pointing to just such bumps on the road to greater data sharing.
Research the company undertook with industry analyst firm IDC showed that organizations sought feedback on information delivery preferences from managers and power users at a much higher clip than they did from front-line users, customers and business partners. The May survey of 401 business decision makers found that the majority of companies regularly ask for feedback from executive management (82%), mid-level management (83%) and knowledge workers (70%).
Companies less often ask about the preferences of operational/front-line employees (55%), customers (51%), external partners (41%) and suppliers (34%). The disparity was more pointed in the U.S. than some other places, Corcoran said.
While it's used every day as the lifeblood of commerce, data is suddenly at the center of headlines in the popular press. That doesn't mean it will be shared more broadly, though -- unless companies, government institutions and the people who work for and interact with them make sharing it a priority.
Jack Vaughan is SearchDataManagement.com's news and site editor. Email him at email@example.com.