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Data: Why Google is a Genius and a Fool

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.

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.

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First, take a few minutes and watch this excellent presentation by Hans Rosling at the 2006 TED conference.

Hans is a professor teaching about world health at the Karolinski Institute, and wants to show his students the real power of all the data we have about the world. So, he builds software that takes giant fields of data, often on three, four, or five axes, and brings meaning to them through animation. The data-set becomes almost a story for the viewer — especially when Hans adds commentary. His main wish for future information development is to break down the barriers between those who hold the data (corporations and international governing bodies) and connect it with those who can tell stories with it (students, artists, small startups). Just as there are a multitude of different specialized doctors and surgeons, all with the same base knowledge, but different interpretations and techniques, so should we have data-interpreters with all sorts of skills and all sorts of interests. And the best way to get that effect is to open data up to public experimentation.

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.