Swivel Puts a New Twist on BI for the Masses

This week’s commentary is a bit non-traditional; it’s all about data, but has little to do with SQL Server. My thoughts this week were sparked by an email message that one of my business colleagues sent with the subject line “This could put ‘BI for the masses’ in a new light.” I’ve always been a big fan of the concept of BI for the masses and have written about the idea many times because I think that it will happen one day. So a message with that subject line is bound to get my attention.

To get us all on the same page about what the message referred to, I’d like you start by reading the news article “Swivel Aims to Become the Internet Archive for Data” and the supporting user comments at http://www.techcrunch.com/2006/12/05/swivel-to-launch-this-week-communitize-your-data . Yes, I know that’s more homework than is typically necessary to absorb my commentary. Humor me.

Done reading? Good.

Calling Swivel “The internet archive for data” and saying it’s a “bit like YouTube for data” might sound like lofty aspirations for a site that is just in the preview stages. In fact, I had a hard time justifying to myself the need to write about Swivel before anyone has evaluated whether the service really works. But it’s such an interesting idea that I simply couldn’t resist thinking out loud about the potential effect. To me, the idea of “BI for the masses” has always implied more of a corporate slant. I never really expected Great Aunt Suzzie to be “doing BI.” But, what if BI, data-mining--or whatever fancy techno-terms we use to describe visual data analysis--does become truly mainstream, adopted by the masses?

The article quotes an unidentified PhD student working in bioinformatics as saying, “For me this sounds potentially very interesting. It would be useful to share data for collaborative research, especially if they make it easy to access the data via APIs. I could even release alongside a publication the means to fully reproduce the calculations via this site. Others could quickly build on the publication with access to the data and analysis.”

Ok, so I don’t think Swivel is going to put corporate IT out of work anytime soon. The data privacy and security problems are simply too complex to deal with. But what if something like Swivel made it easy for people who aren’t functional experts to “do BI” without dedicated IT support? What if these unwashed masses, lacking the benefit of corporate IT, could publish, analyze, and understand complex data sets in a holistic interrelated manner? Might that create a vast, almost unimaginable, increase in the level of complex data analysis that happens worldwide? Might it work in almost the same way that the simple Internet browser coupled with search engines creates a vast encyclopedic collection of content that includes random junk as well as exactly the right thing you were looking for and that would have otherwise been impossible to find? Interesting.

I’ve talked about the idea of spreadmarts in past editorials (“Spread the Love: The Challenge of Corralling Scattered Data” at http://www.sqlmag.com/Article/ArticleID/50607/Spread_the_Love_The_Challenge_of_Corralling_Scattered_Data.html and “Can the Spreadmart Beast Be Tamed?” at http://www.sqlmag.com/Article/ArticleID/50661/Can_the_Spreadmart_Beast_Be_Tamed.html ), and I’ve talked about some of the acquisitions, partnerships, and new-product offerings that Google has announced over the past six months or so. I wonder whether Google has its long-term sights on being an aggressive, data-oriented platform for corporate America.

I also wonder whether something like Swivel will be part of the ultimate solution that unlocks the data and insight stored in the world’s spreadmarts. Or maybe this is simply a neat idea that will never even get off the ground. Swivel might seem like a silly idea to hard-core data professionals, folks who would wonder and doubt about the accuracy of any data captured and published in such a non-controlled manner. I share those doubts as well. But then again, I was pretty surprised when Google bought YouTube for a zillion trillion dollars (or what ever the crazy, unimaginable number was). I have a much easier time seeing Google being interested in an idea like Swivel as part of a comprehensive, long-term plan to create a robust data-analysis empire. I’m just sad that I didn’t think of it first.

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