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Beautiful Data by Toby Segaran, Jeff Hammerbacher

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Chapter 12. The Design of Sense.us

Jeffrey Heer

I MUST CONFESS THAT I DON'T BELIEVE IN BEAUTIFUL DATA. AT LEAST NOT WITHOUT CONTEXT.

Prior to World War II, the government of the Netherlands collected detailed civil records cataloging the demographics of Dutch citizenry. A product of good intentions, the population register was collected to inform the administration of government services. After the German invasion, however, the same data was used to effectively target minority populations (Croes 2006). Of the approximately 140,000 Jews that lived in the Netherlands prior to 1940, only about 35,000 survived.

Though perhaps extreme, for me this sobering tale underscores a fundamental insight: the "beauty" of data is determined by how it is used. Data holds the potential to improve understanding and inform decision-making for the better, thereby becoming "beautiful" in action. Achieving value from data requires that the right data be collected, protected, and made accessible and interpretable to the appropriate audience. The fiasco in which AOL released insufficiently anonymized search query data is a recent failure of protection.

Fortunately, most examples are not nearly as tragic as these tales. A more common occurrence is data wasting away: collected and stored in data warehouses—sometimes at great infrastructural cost—but left underutilized. For companies and governments alike, languishing data represents a lost opportunity and poor return on investment. The value of data is proportional ...

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