We know that data is no flash in the pan; no trendy buzzword with little to no meaning beneath the surface. Instead it is here to stay, powering business best practices and driving the way we approach customer interaction for today, tomorrow, and the foreseeable future.

Increasingly sophisticated methods of storage and transmission, ingenious visualizations pushing the boundaries of what is possible within the medium, organizations which meet their customers and clients seamlessly across each and every channel; all of this and more is helping to take big data to the next level.

But we should not be complacent. We should not rest on our laurels and presume that all of this is coming our way. Instead, we need to make it happen.

The Expert View

At the end of September, MIT’s Institute for Data, Systems and Society (IDSS) held a conference to discuss the future of big data. The overriding theme of the conference was this: “how can we harness something as abstract as data and turn it into a force for public good?”

The registered Big Data fans amongst us – myself included – relish such a topic. This is the kind of question which sets minds a-dreaming, as we concoct ways in which we can apply the power of data in an ever-changing world.

However, the experts at MIT’s conference were a little more cautious. Speaking at the event, Sarah Williams – Assistant Professor of Urban Planning at MIT – explained how furthering the field of Big Data was a duty and a responsibility, rather than something we should take for granted. Instead of enjoying the privilege of being here to witness the beginnings of something special in data science, we need to take up the baton ourselves, and push the discipline forward.

“Big Data will not change the world unless it is collected and synthesized into tools that have a public benefit,” Professor Williams said. She was referring specifically to the urban spaces and population centers of the future, and the role data will play in their formation.

Data Visualization and Urban Planning

Professor Williams went on to outline the ways in which data can assist as we transform the living and working spaces utilized by the world’s urban population. This included gaining insight into traffic levels and congestion hotspots, transposing this data onto a city map and developing techniques aimed at alleviating the problem.

She also used the problem of noise pollution as an example, and explained how applying the vast amounts of data generated by an urban space each and every day can help us to reduce noise levels in our cities. If Big Data is collected and wielded correctly, we gain the tools required to make such spaces far more pleasant, efficient and attractive for residents and visitors.

But it was Professor Williams’ advocacy of data visualization which provided perhaps the most fascinating insight. The professor and her panel outlined how data visualization is a vital tool driving the future of Big Data. As we connect with data in ever larger and more complex volumes and configurations, visualization, she explained, is the only way to achieve real, actionable understanding.

Fascinating Visuals from MIT

Professor Williams’ students at MIT have been working on pieces of visualization which deal with rates of incarceration in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. The professor displayed some of these visualizations during her talk, explaining how the visualization delivered a better understanding of the factors which lead to incarceration, the huge social cost of crime and subsequently punishment, and areas in which real changes could be made to reduce these issues.

The motivation behind these visualizations, Professor Williams explained, is to “expose urban policy issues” and to deliver the insight required to provide a safe and secure society for this generation and those which are to follow.

Of course, the power of data visualization in this capacity will come as no surprise. Still, it is exhilarating to see this power applied on such a grand scale.

Politics, America and the Data of Tomorrow

Politics has become boring and staid in the USA. There are no emotive issues left, all politicians are fundamentally offering the same deal, and the American electorate are well and truly disengaged.

Well… not really.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock on Mars with your fingers in your ears and an industrial strength blindfold tied securely around your head for the past 24 months, you will know that politics is the hot topic on everyone’s lips at the moment. For the last year, America has experienced one of the most closely fought presidential campaigns in living memory, and – regardless of which side of the debate you find yourself – no one can accuse the goings-on on the campaign trail of being boring.

Data visualization has played a huge part in this, not simply in the media coverage of election, but also in the manner in which the candidates and their campaign teams conduct their strategies. Speaking at the IDSS conference, Charles Stewart – MIT Department of Political Science Distinguished Professor – explained more;

“Interest in election data is not simply about choosing the best candidates or policies,” he said, “it is also about who controls the data and how it is used.”

While presidential candidates utilizing data on the campaign trail is nothing new, experts at the conference described how this approach is now permeating every aspect and every level of politics. Chief Analytics officer for the Messina Group, Kassia DeVorssey described how everyone from White House hopefuls to small town mayoral candidates are “thinking strategically about ‘how I can use data to best run my campaign.”

We see it time and time again in politics: the politician who best understands his or her electorate wins. We have also seen how a firm grasp of the facts, figures and datasets at hand are vital for success on the political battleground. Data visualization just found a new arena in which to shine; expect to see more of this in the future.

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Image via idss2016.mit.edu/

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