Data-A Creative's New Best Friend

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Intel Corp. pasted my entire life onto the walls of a museum. Facebook pictures of friends and family, vacations, weddings and even the acquaintances I barely remember line the white walls of an online exhibit hall, thanks toIntel's Museum of Me website that pulls social-media detritus out of storage to make something beautiful. The marketer's time and effort, which may have once gone toward ads, now manifests as data visualization.

Intel is not the first marketer to pipe a fire hose of data into a visualization tool to delight its consumers; it follows Nike Plus, as well as Sprint, General Electric and Fiat as brands that have used a stream of information reformatted to be easy on the eyes.

It's all a sure sign that data, once the domain of geeks and scientists, has now infiltrated visual style. We share infographics on The New York Times website and delight at the Sprint Now Network widget -- even while the marketer's moved away from the tagline in its commercials, the online widget still tells there are more than 75,000 subscribers using its GPS.

"It's less that consumers are more educated about data today, but now they're used to consuming it," said Tye Rattenbury, data scientist for R/GA, the digital agency that recently launched its own data-visualization department to make the discipline a larger part of its client work. "Think of it as a shift in style."

While marketers are just beginning to package the reams of complicated data now available -- Facebook accounts for Intel, health statistics for GE or car performance for Fiat's Eco:Drive application -- startups and technology companies have led the way in transforming data from marketing prop and resource for sales pitches to actual products and services for consumers.

"[Data science] is being adopted everywhere, but coming into advertising is fairly new," said Mr. Rattenbury.

Technology companies like Intel have long used data crunchers to help develop product and pour through business analytics. The real-estate search engine Trulia has commandeered data visualization to help people find homes and apartments to rent or buy. Late last year, the Sequoia Capital and Accel Partners-backed company acquired another startup, Movity, dedicated to visualizing geographic data. Since then, Trulia has launched maps that compare rent or list prices between U.S. cities or exhibit neighborhood crime rates drilled all the way down to individual city blocks.

With these new tools to slice and dice Census and housing data, color, shape and maps replace numbers or Excel sheets to communicate what's crucial to make real-estate decisions.

"How can we move from spectacle and analysis to decision making?" said Trulia designer and Movity cofounder Sha Hwang. "Data and analysis can help you understand your city."

But that ability to pipe crime stats from 1,000 government agencies into a color-coded map online can't happen without a still rare mix of math and artistic skill.

"It's easy to find people who can make pretty pictures and it's easy to find people who can do math," said Hilary Mason, chief scientist at link-shortening service Bit.ly. She, too, is among the ranks of those who've come to be called data scientists. "But it's difficult to find people who can do both."

Ms. Mason joined Bit.ly from a post as computer-science professor. Trulia's Mr. Hwang studied architecture and spent time at Stamen Design, a data-visualization studio. Stamen Design also spawned another pioneer in the field, Ben Cerveny, who left the firm to start his own design studio Bloom.io.

So what, then, does a data scientist do exactly?

"My job is to analyze our data set to understand it and build products on it," Bit.ly's Ms. Mason said. "I look at raw data, do the math to clean it up and build systems to make it easy to understand." Ms. Mason has helped build Bit.ly Enterprise for publishers and marketers to visualize who clicks their links, where in the world they live and who's disseminating content on their behalf. "All of this data exists and we have the capacity to serve it," she added. "It's a huge competitive advantage to see in real time what's happening with your data."

In other words, data still has its place as a weapon in a company's arsenal -- perhaps more so than ever. And visualization helps marketers deal with data overload as more and more measuring tools come into play.

"Now their problem is that there's so much information, that people are paralyzed with what to do with it," said Roger Barnette, president of IgnitionOne, an analytics unit of Dentsu's Innovation Interactive. IgnitionOne has created a visualization tool, LiveMarketer, to let marketers follow where consumers surf a brand website and how likely that they are to make a purchase, based on web habits and surfing history.

R/GA recently hired Mr. Rattenbury, who came from Intel, as its first data scientist. While the new data-visualization unit hasn't produced any client work yet, it's meant to help the agency both better understand the data that marketing programs collect from consumers and bring the discipline to its clients.

"There's definitely an increasing demand from consumers," said Mr. Rattenbury. "In some cases, consumers [are] leading their brands to the fire."

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