Poll: Will Data Always Be Just For Geeks?

Photo by penmachine

I threw out a random thought a couple of months back. I tweeted, “Remember when computers used to be just for geeks? Now they’re ubiquitous. We can do the same for data.”

To be honest, I was just babbling, but I’ve been giving it some thought, and you know, now I’m not so sure. There are so many applications popping up every day that promise to socialize data. To make it the YouTube of data. None of them have really taken off though.

Is it because the visualization tools aren’t advanced enough to make data accessible to the common user or is data simply meant to stay in the hands of experts?

So this begs the question:


If yes, what do you think makes data so distant to non-experts? If no, what will it take for non-experts to start interacting with data? Or are they already?


  • Yes.
    non experts don’t need data. they need stuff derived from data, and not necessarily directly at that.

    the computer may be ubiquitous, it is still for geeks.
    most people don’t know the specs of the computer they are using, nor the number of computers in their home. however, they are very well aware of the high level stuff, like the software they are using and what they are doing with it.

    it’s the same for data. this is why visualization is important, because it’s an abstraction of data.

  • Data isn’t just for geeks — and really never has been — but programming with data, while becoming more popular, will probably remain the domain of the few. (Just as computers aren’t for geeks anymore, but computer coders are still an overwhelming minority).

    What’s happening now is data is being brought to the masses – not in raw form, but through web software that lets people work with it. Here’s a interview that came out today with Tom Carden and Boris Anthony, where they speculate on the future of interactive data:


    Data for the masses, just as we now have computing for the masses. But the masses are happier using data tools, not building them.

  • Today, a new service from Google “Google Fusion” – Import and visualize table data online :


  • John Woods June 10, 2009 at 6:40 am

    I think “data for the masses” would be wonderful. But it ain’t easy. Look at how much damage mainstream media can do with a single data point, misrepresented. Imagine if everyone had just enough access to data to get themselves really confused – or worse, really convinced of erroneous conclusions.

    People need to engage with data skeptically and with a curiosity about context. They need skills and a mindset for that which, these days, are mostly only possessed by geeks.

    I think it would be possible to teach “data skills” in schools, ideally as something separate from (or parallel with) the teaching of mathematics. That would really democratize data.

    • I think teaching data skills to junior high or high school age kids is a great idea. I’d go further and call the class Skepticism 101. During the year, students and teachers (preferably including outsiders like journalists, data analysts, and so on) talk about all the opportunities for numbers, words, or images to mislead if you don’t ask the right questions about what they are trying to tell you.

      I almost missed out getting my current job because I didn’t think of myself as a “data analyst” (still less a data geek) but a journalist. After doing the job for more than a year, I reached the conclusion that 90% of analysis consists of asking the right questions, challenging the apparent ‘rightness’ of the graph or the text or the picture, and how they interact in the article. Given a little instruction, I’m sure many others could come to feel comfortable around data in the same way.

      • I think you guys are dead on. This sort of “skepticism” is one of the first and most important lessons I’ve learned in stat.

      • I think that the point behind a good data visualizations is to prompt a follow up question not just to provide an answer. However, if you don’t understand the broader context or have some background knowledge of the subject being measured and visualized you won’t see the meaning in the numbers or know how to question them. Instead it can become just a design that is visualizing pleasing to the eye.

  • With every app I develop and every report I write, I preach the power and coolness of data and analysis and graphs. I teach my end-users the math and the basics of what they are seeing and show them that they have some tools in their arsenal to do the same kind of quality work.

    My goal is to educate people on what data can do for them and that it’s not mystical mumbo-jumbo that only people with programming or statistics background can do. I’m very slowly trying to change a culture… and I think I’m winning. (Unfortunately I don’t have data to back that claim.)

    Your average person is still afraid of math and programming. I think that you have to create an environment where your average people can feel safe analyzing data and then reporting it on a mass scale. it’s a slow process, but in the end the benefits are great.

  • No. Data is not just for geeks, but useful results from data will always be obtained by those who put forth the effort to learn how to do analyses correctly.

    Non-geeks will always have their psuedo-science results.

  • Computers became wildly popular among the masses because they started providing entertainment. Despite the advances and innovations in its handling and presentation, data is still not entertaining to most people. Until data can do that, I highly doubt it will be for non-geeks.

  • No, because it is easier and easier to interact with data as access to it becomes more and more prevalent.

    A classic case would be a twitter subscriber. A great many of the third party apps such twitalyze and twitanalyze help the user work out friends from followers and who to follow.

    Sure, they are not handling directly data but they are involved with a data process that leads to results that are relevant to them.

    As time passes and folks who would normally declare antipathy to data or are dataphobic will become more and more comfortable with the uses of data.

  • Data is a formal framework of information and by definition won’t change. Computers have dramatically changed – most notably they are more useful and accessible.

  • Nathan:

    Data never has been “just for geeks.” (Just ask Moses: see Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers, where he’s trying to figure out just how many People of Israel there were.)

    I submit that the U.S. Census reports are the single most important and most widely used collection of data, perhaps in the world, and certainly for the longest period of time. The Census data drives literally untold numbers of decisions every day ranging from health care to business location studies to congressional redistricting strategies. Now, this is not to say that all data is well known and certainly not always well used, but used it is and used it has been.

    -tom johnson

  • Data is becoming more accessible, with open standards, API’s, data.gov, etc…

    Programming and visualization is becoming easier with processing, manyeyes, etc…

    This means more and more people will BE ABLE to work with this data.

    Whether they do or not isn’t always a question of whether they CAN, anyone can read articles on SlashDot, but do they?

    Not everyone has the desire to look at how restaurant health inspections correspond with population density, unfortunately.

  • Jean Synodinos June 11, 2009 at 12:29 am

    And I think I’m a walking example of the change that’s afoot. Statistics almost kept me from earning my undergraduate degree. In my work as a social marketing and communication type gal, I train normal non-geeks how to effectively communicate evaluation data to illustrate the need for their programs or boast about their successes to any number of different audiences in their communities.

    Most of us are visual learners. A table of stats makes my eyes cross. But visualize it well and I’m a sucker for it. Take the answers to those open-ended student surveys and wordle it — then share it back with those same students so they get a sense of what they and their peers are saying. Take that same information and visualize it differently to show teachers that their students have something really interesting to say.

    Data visualization is powerful. It’s persuasive. And the more we can link data visualization to the human story it tells, the more people will “get it” and ‘want it.”

    More and more, our society is making “evidence-based decisions”. What works? What doesn’t? Decisions are only going to get more data-driven. So we need to continue refining our capacity to collect quality data, and we need ways to visualize that data so it can effectively resonate with–and persuade–all the great non-geeks like me out there.

    • Nicely stated: “Data visualization is powerful. It’s persuasive. And the more we can link data visualization to the human story it tells, the more people will “get it” and ‘want it.””

      Data is fascinating and isn’t intimidating, when folks grow up encountering it daily, in context, as an integral part of their education–which, thank goodness, is happening more and more in schools today at all levels. Data sense/quantitative literacy–the addendum to reading, writing & ‘rithmetic.

  • Smarty Marty June 26, 2009 at 12:58 am

    Data will always be for geeks — there will be no “killer app” that will make raw data (its collection and manipulation) accessible to the masses in the same way that the computer has changed. It’s up to us, the data geeks, to find the important story — the important information — for the masses. In short, it will always take Geek Power to act as the user interface.