Beyond Data Visualization: How Facebook Could Change Big, Scary Numbers

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Connecting data to your social graph could be the next big thing in thinking quantitatively

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ProPublica is on to something with their new "opportunity gap" database. Essentially, the independent journalism group got a hold of a massive cache of school-level data from the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights on a variety of good-school indicators. Now, the normal way to present this data for public consumption might be to create some kind of infographic, maybe even one for every state, or comparing states, etc. Problem is: I'm starting to fear we've reached Peak Infographic. Most of the time, the story they tell is muddled or oversimplified and I find myself pulling out one data point or two, and wondering whether I'd rather see the spreadsheet and sourcing behind all the little pictograms.

Then, along comes ProPublica to give me renewed faith in the power of data visualization by connecting it with your life through Facebook. I recently left the service, but this is one of the best integrations that I've seen. Using the Facebook API, ProPublica pulls *your* high school and then automatically compares it to the other schools in your area. Suddenly, data has all the emotional punch of a high school football rivalry as you scan from Columbia River to Fort Vancouver to Hudson Bay. This is Big Data made personal, not through whizbang graphics but through demonstrated and automatic relevance.

Granted, this is an easy implementation. Facebook has your high school and many high schools are in the DOE database. Technically, it's not too difficult to connect the two sets of information.

But think of all the other ways that data could be made relevant by tapping into the information you enter in any social network. What's your hometown? Boom: here are the closest five SuperFund sites, all plotted on Google Maps around your location. What year were you born? Here are the expected lifespans of the people your age with some simple toggles to see how much sooner you'd be expected to die if you smoked or grew up somewhere else. Where do you work? Here are the gender wage disparities in your industry versus a selection of others.

Of course, these things were always possible with user input. But introducing social network integration allows the automatic integration of your online self with all the data that's sitting out there. And once you've been shown the relevance, you're probably a lot more likely to act on what you've learned or to participate in a crowdsourced effort to improve the database.

So, hats off to ProPublica.

For full disclosure, I should also note that I'm in the early stages of a project with that organization, but that's precisely because they are so good at executing data-driven projects. That is to say, it's stuff like this project that convinced me to partner with them.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer calls Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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