A New Way to Look at the World

November 2, 2009 (CNN) - What's the first thing that goes through your mind when someone says the word "data"?

For many of us, the first image is line graphs, pie charts and spreadsheets with columns and rows full of numbers that leave you bleary-eyed and a bit dazed.

But what if someone were to say data can also mean what you post on Facebook and Twitter, the ratings you gave a restaurant, the photos you uploaded to Flickr or even, perhaps, what you feel.

A bit of a reach? Not anymore.

An emerging set of tools is making it easier than ever to track and compile all sorts of "data" and display it in a way that's relatively easy to understand.

You can now point your mobile phone at a street and instantly get ratings for restaurants. Or type in your address and find reports of crimes that may have occurred in your neighborhood. It's even possible to track emotions on a national and global scale.

"Specialists from scientists to accountants have been dealing with data for decades," said Martin Wattenberg, a researcher at IBM's Center for Social Software. "What's new is that there's a whole lot more data of relevance to consumers.

"At the same time, people are generating a whole lot of data themselves."

There are several reasons why we're seeing more data visualization in popular culture and why it's becoming simpler and more innovative, experts say.

Computers and software have gotten cheaper during the past few decades, and the technology needed to build applications is now in the hands of more people.

Meanwhile, more data are becoming digital, making it easier to parse and catalog. "You have stuff available on government sites that would have only been available on paper a decade ago," Wattenberg said.

Finally, through the advent of social media applications like Facebook and Twitter, coupled with the rise of increasingly sophisticated mobile phones, a cultural shift is seemingly under way.

"People are sort of happily defining their own social networks for other people to see, and that has led people to become interested in exploring data in ways they weren't interested before," Wattenberg said.

Bruce Mau, a designer and author of several books on the subject, called the confluence of the technical and cultural changes nothing short of a "social revolution."

"We're putting tools into the hands of millions of people," he said. "More importantly, we're connecting those people."

Read the full article here.

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