Analytics for All: Data Geekery Goes Mainstream

In 1976, 25,000 runners completed marathons in the United States. Last year, that number soared to half a million.

What do marathons have to do with Big Data, other than that both involve huge numbers (26.2 miles in the race’s case)? Grab a PowerGel and read on.

The 20-fold increase in marathon participation didn’t happen simply because it dawned on more people to tackle the challenge. New, easy-to-follow training and nutrition programs from running gurus like Hal Higdon and Jeff Galloway played a crucial role, helping convince ordinary folks that they could be long-distance runners. A marathoning subculture bloomed, with people joining running clubs and slapping “26.2” stickers on their car bumpers.

Substitute “data scientists” for elite athletes and regular computer users for weekend runners and the situation isn’t much different from what’s happening these days in Big Data and analytics.

Thanks to the emergence of intuitive tools that make it easier than was imaginable even a few years ago to glean insights from vast amounts of fast-moving information, data isn’t just for data experts anymore. Business users and many others are participating in and benefiting from the new data culture.

Some companies are discovering that an experimental “hackathon” mindset has taken root, with excitement about analytics surging in various departments and lines of business. Armed with the new self-service tools, people are getting answers to questions they never had the time or inclination to ask before.

In a recent Gigaom article, Derrick Harris wrote about the power of using Twitter Analytics to explore the interests, locations and demographics of followers, or using free software to visualize his food intake and exercise.

“We are, for many purposes, becoming numbers fed into and spit out of algorithms,” Harris wrote. “Our personal data will influence everything from the ads we see to the job offers we get, and it will behoove individuals to see at least a modicum of what companies, institutions and the government are seeing.”

Screen Shot 2014-03-25 at 9.23.22 AMIf the 1970s was the “Me Decade,” we are now in the “Virtual Me Decade.” And as newer and even simpler tools become available, excitement around analytics will only grow.

Think of all the technologies that once seemed cumbersome and even a little scary, such as editing and publishing photos online, and how second-nature simple they feel now. A similar transition is underway with analytics.

It’s becoming downright fun to analyze data in search of a-ha moments. And, as in a marathon, everyone gets to be a hero.'

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