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Analytics And The Move Toward An Information Democracy

Consumerization and self service trends are driving fundamental changes in the way we think about and use information.

I don't know if democracy is winning out in the Middle East. But this much is clear: Nearer home, information democracy is here to stay, led by the consumerization of analytics in our business and personal lives. Even more so, the trend towards self-service analytics is fueling this change--that is, the ability of information consumers to pull together data into interactive, functionally rich and visually appealing forms without help from technology experts.

This new, exciting step has been engendered by the confluence of technology, data and demand woven together in positive feedback loop. Tech innovation and the better understanding and availability of data lead to more demand for meaningful information, which in turns spurs more innovation and efforts in data provisioning. And, of course, nothing happens until there's forceful support from the top.

A stellar example of this is the thrust towards open governance--read data transparency--by the federal CIO's office. Check out the federal government's IT dashboard--this is information democracy in action. The technologies that are powering information openness include, among others, visualization from Socrata, a vendor that specializes in data socialization tools for the government; Drupal's open source content management platform; the Dublin Core Metadata Initiative; and cloud-based infrastructure. Architectural and governance initiatives provide guidance, driven by mandates from the federal CIO leadership, with strong support from the White House.

(Hot off the press: Federal CIO Vivek Kundra put in his resignation even as this column is going online. How that impacts this momentum will be a good case study.)

Simultaneously, consumer analytics has taken off with the emergence, convergence and rapid adoption of symbiotic cloud and mobile technologies. From applications that take away your privacy for no particular gain (e.g. sharing your location with friends) to websites that let you browse more meaningful content, we're all being pampered by information-rich offerings that leave us greedy for more.

Self-service analytics is also leading to exciting times in business, with rapidly evolving technologies and increasingly information-aware consumers challenging established thinking.

Expensive, unwieldy solutions as well as stolid and heedless customer orientation from lumbering business intelligence elephants like IBM Cognos, SAP Business Objects and Oracle's OBIEE have led to the emergence of gazelles like QlikTech and Tableau, to name two of the most popular. They've been greeted enthusiastically by business users looking for rapid access to the information they need without dependence on IT prioritization and laborious software development lifecycles. Spurred by the competition, the BI giants have begun to focus on improved self-service reporting--witness the new and improved capabilities of the recently released Cognos 10 BI platform.

For all the talk (and even hype), empowering the average office worker by embedding BI into the business process is still in its infancy. Take interactive voice response: Despite nearly two decades of using this technology in the workplace and significant strides more recently in voice recognition, our telephonic interaction with "the system" is still mostly limited to simple transactions ("To check balances, press 1") and rote marketing messages while on hold ("Take advantage of our low, online prices for your all prescription medication needs"). Clearly, real-time analytics could let us do so much more ("Did you know that you could have saved $170 this year by using our store brand arthritis drugs in place of the more expensive branded drugs you're currently using?").

I sometimes feel like what I imagine some democracy lover in Libya or Yemen must be feeling--extreme eagerness, mixed with trepidation, on witnessing a breathtaking movement towards democracy. In my case, it's the move towards information democracy through self-service analytics. Admittedly this movement is much less profound but no less exciting.

Rajan Chandras has more than 20 years of experience advising and leading business technology initiatives, with a focus on strategy and information management. Write him at rchandras at gmail dot com.

What industry can teach government about IT innovation and efficiency. Also in the new, all-digital issue of InformationWeek Government: Federal agencies have to shift from annual IT security assessments to continuous monitoring of their risks. Download it now. (Free registration required.)

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