Over the last few months I have been introduced to the fascinating world of Meet Ups. I have to admit that initially this was with some reluctance. I feel old enough as it is without spending my evenings surrounded by technology evangelists, barely out of college. I quickly discovered however, that if I sat at the back among the brown suede loafers and blazers of the investor brigade I didn’t feel quite so conspicuous.

Last week I attended a Meet Up focused on innovation in the enterprise technology space. The event included a talk from a mystery guest who was later to be revealed as someone who, until recent retirement, had held a very senior position in the technology department of the CIA (does the CIA have departments? Sounds far too humdrum for an organisation like that). He was coming along to give us his thoughts on the trends that would dominate the technology industry over the next five to 10 years. Unsurprisingly the common thread was data. This was particularly interesting because of the way in which the CIA has started using data itself. The CIA has moved away from algorithm mining through huge static databases or data warehouses and is now looking at data in near real time, giving it the ability to analyse and trend time series data (such as voice, mobile internet, video and machine for example) instantaneously.

In my previous article I wrote about the need to set data free and give people and organisations outside your business the chance to do the things with your data that you are unable to do yourselves. This was a message that was repeated by our man from the CIA but he took this idea one step further. Where he believes the future lies is in simple visual insight tools that don’t just allow other developers to do cool things with your data, but anyone and everyone.

When you look at the lifecycle of technology tools the ultimate destination is always the consumer. From the point at which the first computer was created, through to the arrival of the internet, technologies were built and designed for a business or engineering audiences but have ultimately become the tools for the consumer. In the last few years this has been reversed and that is a significant shift that has to be recognised. These days innovation is far more likely to come from outside the business world than from within it.

So why is this relevant to the data story? The speaker from the CIA stated that when it comes to what’s next, if he was a developer he would be focusing all his time on creating tools that enable the man in the street to get real value and insight out of data. This might sound way out there. After all global organisations with armies of data scientists and huge IT budgets still struggle to extract real, actionable insights from the data they have at their disposal.

Let’s take a step back and look at the tools that you and I use every day to manage our lives and communicate with friends and relatives. How many of the developers that originally created these tools would ever have imagined their use in the hands of the consumer? Email, browsers, social networking, messaging on mobile phones, internet-based tools like Skype or IM? So the development of tools that enable consumers to explore and make use of the data that’s out there are inevitable – it’s a question of when and not if.  

To a certain extent we are already use them. There are a myriad of sites that pull together and cross reference data to give us information – comparison sites are the obvious example. These are little more than souped up aggregators however.

You also have the ongoing battle between Android and Apple which has now moved into the wearbable technology sector – creating devices and apps that are built around data and the data journey.

The real power will come when we have access to tools that enable us to ask questions, identify trends and ultimately predict how things might pan out so we can alter our behaviour or decisions in our lives. Imagine if we had a tool that could understand how the relationships between individual data points impact the price of holidays so we could predict the best time to buy. A simple tool that we can ask questions of and can go out and explore the data in such a way as to give us a fast, accurate answer to almost any question. Is it likely to be sunny for the August Bank Holiday? When is the best time to buy a car? What is the best way for me to get tickets for Glastonbury next year?

Ubiquitous data is the next really big frontier not just for businesses but for society as a whole. Right now we are only at the start of the data journey. We are just starting to explore what might be possible and consider the tools that we might need in order to be able to get there. These are questions that are being asked across many different areas of society – from healthcare to finance, science and engineering to politics and governance.

So why should a CIO care? Imagine your organisation as a small scale world. Every employee you have has the potential to use data in a way that could benefit your business. Imagine if you could give them a consumer grade tool that could help them do this? Imagine what they might come up with and where that might take you? Slightly scary? Yes – but also impossibly exciting, creating insightful collaboration and ideas.