Big Data Helping You Find Your Quantified Self

Can data visualization help us find our true selves and make the world a better place? By Tom Atkinson for Tech Trends

We are on the cusp of a data boom. We already generate more data every day than at any other time in history due to the pervasiveness of mobile technology. However, the increased adoption of wearables and smart IoT devices in our homes, offices and public spaces, coupled with advances in machine learning will make those already impressive data volumes pale in comparison to what is to come.

Established out of Stanford in 2003, Tableau Software has been in the data visualisation space for nearly 15 years, and has spearheaded the trend that has thankfully seen us move away from Excel spreadsheets and those good old pie charts. Sure, they’re still around, but cutting-edge technology such as Tableau’s now works behind the scenes to turn data into actionable answers and insights in a much more intuitive and productive way that doesn’t require a knack for numbers or special training by the user. Data, Francois Ajenstat, Tableau Chief Product Officer believes, should be made as approachable as possible, and to many more people.

It is difficult to grasp the sheer quantity of data individuals will be generating and consuming in the near future but according to Cisco, global IP traffic will increase nearly threefold over the next 5 years, and will have increased 127-fold from 2005 to 2021 and overall, IP traffic will grow at a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 24 percent from 2016 to 2021. It is clear this growth will continue and as our data piles up in cyberspace, both humans and technology will have to advance to engage with it.

Soon over 40% of that data will be generated by IoT connected devices, and this shift is already revolutionizing many industries and creating completely new ones. Most of this data will come from sensors, geolocation, temperature, proximity, motion, humidity, pedometers and many more that will increasingly record information about every aspect of our lifestyle and habits. As the IoT trend accelerates and continues to connect more and more devices Internet, those sensors will create high volumes of data in a short timeframe so new systems need to be able to quickly compile data from sensors that might not be located in a single location, city, country or even continent.

To handle this unimaginable volume of data, the backend infrastructure that shares and stores it will have to become faster and more agile, while at the same time we will have increasingly sophisticated systems that process and translate these billions of rows of information into useful insights. Visualization, in other words, will be crucial in helping humans make sense of it all. And that is a huge emerging market that is spanning many different technologies. At Microsoft Build, for example Tech Trends experienced how Data Visualization is one of the most compelling applications for Mixed Reality.

“Data is the electricity of the 21st century, it powers everything, and increasingly, with IoT, everything is generating data, your phone is generating data, your home is becoming smart, and your car is getting smart, stores and products are generating data, so how do you bring all that data to life and make use of it?” asks Tableau’s Chief Product Officer Francois Ajenstat.

Tableau’s business model works on providing those valuable visualization tools and services for businesses, but they’re also passionate about democratizing access and advancing “data empowerment” on an individual level. Its Public Platform — which Francois describes as a “YouTube of Data” — is nothing short of fascinating, showing that citizens and ordinary people want to engage with data and use it to drive productive actions and broader conversations around topics as varied as Election Turnout, Global Warming, or a shared loved for The Beatles. As of May 2017 it has enabled over 300,000 users to share their data stories, sharing their own topical data analysis for free with a global community.

Many of us already routinely monitor how many steps we take each hour, how long we sleep, how much we eat of what… In a world where our every heartbeat and brainwave will be recorded, we won’t need psychiatrists to delve into the depths of our quantified selves, we will need good data vis. Millions of people, for example, use devices such as the Fitbit to monitor their personal data, which is visualized and analysed through a now-familiar style dashboard. As Tableau’s Senior Technical Evangelist Andy Cotgreave explained in a recent article, our relationship with such interfaces needs to reflect the new reality where our data is constantly evolving. A Dashboard, therefore, should evolve with our data, and be seen not as a finishing line, but as a starting point, empowering users to better know their quantified selves.

IoT applications usually come with pre-built data visualizations which are quite boring to look at and answer only a few standard questions that cannot be customized. Yet the real value in IoT data only emerges when users can get their hands dirty playing with their data and exploring its limits. “You want the user to be able to say, tell me more, I have a new question, and then another question.” Francois enthused, “Tableau wants to give people the most clear visualisation so they can then engage with it in and understand the data. Easily seeing patterns, trends, and making meaningful comparisons and connections.”

Data lets people understand the world around them and have an impact, concludes Ajenstat. “Being able to access your data or data about the world around you is empowering, as people are better able to engage with the world around them and change it for the better,” he says. “We are investing in AI, algorithms and machine learning to help bring data to life. We believe AI can help augment the human, and make the human smarter.”

Technology writer for FastCo, Quartz, The Next Web, Ars Technica, Wired + more. Consultant specializing in VR #MixedReality and Strategic Communications

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