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Illustration by Kyle Bean

Meaning In Numbers: Data Is The New Common Language

We’ve collected more information in the past two years than all the years before. Time to do something creative with it.

Every strategy consultant has one PowerPoint slide he regards as his opus. After eight years in the field, I had several contenders: a two-by-two matrix that made people rethink the very nature of x and y axes; a waterfall chart that redefined the relationship between revenue and expenses; a customer- profitability Mekko chart that would sit as easily at MoMA as it did in GoToMeeting. But my greatest gift to the value-adding arts was for a telco that feared it had no future in the Internet era. Using clip art of stacked cylinders to represent databases (did I mention I'm a brilliant artist?), I depicted the missed opportunities in the valuable customer info our client didn't use.

Internet companies could ask users to share their location, but telcos already knew where all their devices were. Facebook could talk up the "social graph," but what is the Call Detail Record but an indicator of true friendship? And payments? Phone companies are basically billing operations with fiber optics. They were leaving money, market share, and innovation on the table.

My team imagined telcos collecting, analyzing, and building APIs to provide access to customer data, making the world a more efficient, creative, and just place where freedom would ring for a thousand years--or at least until privacy concerns reined in growth. Our clients nodded their approval and promptly filed the slide in "The Department of Too Far Outside the Box."

When it comes to data, possession is perhaps only four-tenths of the law. Set-top boxes know our remote-control interactions. Vehicles know how much, how well, and how fast we drive. Credit card companies know what, when, and where we buy. Google knows, well, all the things. If the prevalence of chatter about "big data" is any indicator, data has evolved from something we collect with the vague promise of future value to something we analyze to retrieve that value.

This fall, I got to see this transition up close when I spoke at DataGotham, an event celebrating New York's "data community" and showcasing how data analysis was transforming finance, fashion, startups, and urban life. Michael P. Flowers, director of the city's Policy and Strategic Planning Analytics Team (does your city have one of those?), explained how the N.Y.C. government had reduced emergency-response times by optimizing where it put idling ambulances, placing them close to likely trauma areas and 24-hour coffee shops with bathrooms. Jake Porway, founder of DataKind, which pairs data scientists with social enterprises, lauded these geeks as modern superheroes, using their extraordinary powers for humanitarian causes. Not wanting to feel left out, I used my talk to show the value of Foursquare's search function (called Explore) by typing in the word racist. Really. Check out LocationBasedRacism.com.

There's another transition looming for the role of data in our world: of data into language itself. We can tell stories with data. We can make art (as the recent Art Hack Day, in Boston, did), and we can even demonstrate the true measure of one's language proficiency: We can make jokes. During the same week as DataGotham, my company, Cultivated Wit, hosted the world's first "comedy hack day." Comedians, developers, and technology sponsors joined forces one weekend to pitch, build, then demo 23 comedic apps.

Fox the News takes USA Today articles and programmatically turns them into hilarious near-gibberish stories. "1 in 5 U.S. Adults Sports a Tattoo" became "Breaking: 1 in 5 U.S. Adults Sports a Lubricant. Dead Man Refused to Comment." Lobbyists From Last Night uses Sunlight Foundation data to out members of Congress for their fundraising activities, taunting them with tweets such as "@chuckschumer I raised no money at breakfast, as usual. How'd you do #lfln"

Just as smartphones revolutionized how we avoid talking to each other and food trucks changed our tolerance for eating while standing on the street, the emergence of data science as a vehicle for expression is going to radically change how we create. It gives us a new way to tell the story of the world around us. Even if it's just to find out how racist our current location is.

Baratunde Thurston is the author of The New York Times best seller How to Be Black and the founder of Cultivated Wit, a comedy and technology company that tells stories in engaging ways.

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