The future of data is about a lot more than pretty charts and sales reports

It seems like no discussion about the value of data is complete without some — often much — emphasis on better business intelligence software and aesthetically pleasing visualizations that let even newspaper readers easily digest lots of numbers. Also, maybe the idea of how data science will let companies and institutions mash together all sorts of data and come out with some new, hopefully earth-moving insight insight human behavior.

How very 2011.

These things are important, but they also represent a limited viewpoint of the effects data can really have on our world and how we do business. Data isn’t just about seeing, it’s also about doing. Data isn’t just about analyzing consumers, it’s also about empowering them. It’s about making dumb products smarter, ugly products prettier and taking advantage of major advances in computing to make entirely new products out of data sources once deemed untouchable.

If you look carefully, you can see these things happening around you right now. Many of our favorite websites and services are the products of data for inform their design and user experience. The internet of things is making our appliances — from toothbrushes to gas turbines — smarter while also inspiring entrepreneurs to rethink the way consumers interact with their own data. Smart energy management is a long way from yelling, “Turn off the light when you leave a room,” and a fitness tracker and mobile app are pretty far removed from a pen and paper.

Then there are the new types of data we’re learning to process, analyze and ultimately turn to our advantage. If you’ve experienced better customer service lately, it could be because speech-recognition algorithms are listening to your words and helping guide the representative’s response. Improved computer vision is helping power advances in manufacturing, surveillance and medical research. And systems like IBM Watson and Google Books are reading our texts to learn about topics and language at a scale unachievable by humans.

Many of these capabilities are already making their way onto our tablets and smartphones, letting everyone make more sense of the photos they’re snapping, the places they’re going and the words they’re saying. Even more than that, though, smartphones are capable of generating incredible amounts of data that can inform macro-level research on everything from the global economy to traffic flows to the spread of disease.

These are the types of ideas that our Structure Data conference, which takes place March 19 and 20 in New York, is about. Of course, we’ll still talk about the future of technologies like Hadoop and the value of adding more — and new — data to those weekly reports. We’ll still talk about using machine learning to discover latent patterns in fields like banking, retail and national security.

Hopefully, though, these are just the starting points for a deeper discussion about where a concept like big data can take businesses, governments and organizations of all kinds. There’s using data for the sake of incremental improvement, and then there’s using data to fundamentally transform how products, services and societies are built — and to help see how entirely new ones might look. We think that’s the ultimate power of data, and its seeds are being planted today.