We need a data democracy, not a data dictatorship

The democratization of data is a real phenomenon, but building a sustainable data democracy means truly giving power to the people. The alternative is just a shift of power from traditional data analysts within IT departments to a new generation of data scientists and app developers. And this seems a lot more like a dictatorship than a democracy — a benevolent dictatorship, but a dictatorship nonetheless.

These individuals and companies aren’t entirely bad, of course, and they’re actually necessary. Apps that help predict what we want to read, where we’ll want to go next or what songs we’ll like are certainly cool and even beneficial in their ability to automate and optimize certain aspects of our lives and jobs. In the corporate world, there will always be data experts who are smarter and trained in advanced techniques and who should be called upon to answer the toughest questions or tackle the thorniest problems.

Last week, for example, introduced a new feature of its Chatter intra-company social network that categorizes a variety of data sources so employees can easily find the people, documents and other information relevant to topics they’re interested in. As with similarly devised services — LinkedIn’s People You May Know, the gravitational search movement, or any type of service using an interest graph — the new feature’s beauty and utility lie in its abstraction of the underlying semantic algorithms and data processing.

The problem, however, comes when we’re forced to rely on these people, features and applications to decide how data can affect our lives or jobs, or what questions we can answer using the troves of data now available to us. In a true data democracy, citizens must be empowered to make use of their own data as they see fit and they must only have to rely apps and experts by choice or when the task really requires an expert hand. At any rate, citizens must be informed enough to have a meaningful voice in bigger decisions about data.

The democratic revolution is underway

The good news is that there’s a whole new breed of startups trying to empower the data citizenry, whatever their role. Companies such as 0xdata, Precog and BigML are trying to make data science more accessible to everyday business users. There are next-generation business intelligence startups such as SiSense, Platfora and ClearStory rethinking how business analytics are done in an area of HTML5 and big data. And then there are companies such as Statwing, Infogram and Datahero (which will be in beta mode soon, by the way) trying to bring data analysis to the unwashed non-data-savvy masses.

Combined with a growing number of publicly available data sets and data marketplaces, and more ways of collecting every possible kind of data —  personal fitness, web analytics, energy consumption, you name it — these self-service tools can provide an invaluable service. In January, I highlighted how a number of them can work by using my own dietary and activity data, as well as publicly available gun-ownership data and even web-page text. But as I explained then, they’re still not always easy for laypeople to use, much less perfect.

Statwing spells out statistics for laypeople.
Statwing spells out statistics for laypeople.

Can Tableau be data’s George Washington?

This is why I’m so excited about Tableau’s forthcoming IPO. There are few companies that helped spur the democratization of data over the past few years more than Tableau. It has become the face of the next-generation business intelligence software thanks to its ease of use and focus on appealing visualization, and its free public software has found avid users even among relative data novices like myself. Tableau’s success and vision no doubt inspired a number of the companies I’ve already referenced.

Assuming it begins its publicly traded life flush with capital, Tableau will not just be financially sound — it will also be in a position to help the burgeoning data democracy evolve into something that can last. More money means being able to develop more features that Tableau can use to bolster sales (and further empower business users with data analysis), which should mean the company can afford to also continually improve its free service and perhaps put premium versions in the hands of more types of more non-corporate professionals for free.

Tableau is already easy -- but not easy enough.
Tableau is already easy (I made this) — but not easy enough.

The bottom-up approach has already proven very effective in the worlds of cloud computing, software as a service and open-source software, and I have to assume it’s a win-win situation in analytics, too. Today’s free users will be tomorrow’s paying users once they get skilled enough to want to move onto bigger data sets and better features. But the base products have to be easy enough and useful enough to get started with, or companies will only have a lot of registrations and downloads but very few avid users.

And if Tableau steps ups its game around data democratization, I have to assume it will up the ante for the company’s fellow large analytics vendors and even startups. A race to empower the lower classes on the data ladder would certainly be in stark contrast to the historical strategy of building ever-bigger, ever-more-advanced products targeting only the already-powerful data elite. That’s the kind of revolution I think we all can get behind.

Feature image courtesy of Shutterstock user Tiago Jorge da Silva Estima.