Over and over, we are told that we live in an information age. Gone are the days of brutish and greasy labor amid piles of steel. Instead, we are now masters of the bit and byte, moving mountains of data every nanosecond (just the fact that you know what a nanosecond is says quite a bit about our situation). But while our top executives imagine that they are delicately operating surgeons, slicing these data piles with infinite grace to create new value as if from thin air, the reality is often that we are still laborers staggering under the weight and awkwardness of our information. There is little grace. Our industrialist yearnings for bigger, louder, smellier factories have lead us to crave and build bigger, more all encompassing data mining systems. This is folly. Like surgery, it is the quality, rather than the quantity of the cut, which makes a successful operation. For contrast, witness a subtle swede and a brute-force big G.
First, take a few minutes and watch this excellent presentation by Hans Rosling at the 2006 TED conference.
This is where Google comes in. As one of the most powerful data-based companies on the planet, Google has the chops and opportunity to bridge this gap. Take, for example, their newly released Google Spreadsheet. This program, with its online interface, and multitude of statistical formulae is so close to being just what I’m talking about. With just a few tweaks, like allowances for input and output of RSS feeds, this intermediate step could form the processing for a user-configurable data cruncher to use with all kinds of freely available data. It’s just the tiniest step, that could make the biggest difference.
The real issue is, people want to understand our world, And we have the technology to do it. There is a huge opportunity in turning the masses of clumsy data laborers into subtle information surgeons. It will all come with the right tools.