Making Data Accessible Is A Job for UX Designers

Governments are using on online interfaces to turn open datasets into a public resource. But it’s the way the interfaces are designed that will determine the data’s value to the public.

Its impossible to escape the importance of data in today’s world.

Even though I don’t use data in a lot, I am constantly aware that the way other people use data is a big part of my life. Like everybody else, I’m a consumer. I buy things. And because of that, there are a lot of companies competing to get my attention and my dollar. They do this by figuring me out, guessing what kind of person I am and what I’ll like. This is where data becomes important.

The value of big data has been slowly realized over the last ten years. Today we’re in a situation where most of the world’s data is controlled by a very few companies (mostly Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple). A lot of people are worried that this is just too much power in the hands of too few.

The good news is that not all data is being used as private commercial asset.

Today, governments are leading some very cool initiatives to make data a public resource. This means not just publishing data, but making it accessible through innovative online interfaces that allow users to easily apply the data to their own problems and questions.


I’m interested in these open data projects because they use UX design to address social and political issues. Data is only as useful as what you can do with it and governments are investing in online platforms that rethink how data can be used. Its amazing to see how simple UX and design choices can transform the relationship between governing bodies and their citizens and redistribute ownership of a very important resource — data.

That said, here are a few projects that are turning open data into valuable public resource.

Data For Cities

Created by the World Council on City Data, the Data For Cities project has piloted with 20 certified cities who have contributed their data.

This site’s datasets aren’t as extensive as some other projects’, but they’ve got a cool interface for exploring them. The site lets users to compare different cities across by different sectors, easily summing up the differences between each.

This really places the data in context, and adds meaning by presenting the data in more useful ways. Exploring the data two cities at a time allows for interesting questions and stories to develop. It’s easy to come up with theories, hypotheses and ideas which require further explorations of the data to resolve.

Data VIVA

This platform uses data from the RAIS’s Annual Social Information Report on the Brazilian market. The site tracks the labor market using data provided by Brazilian businesses at the end of each calendar year on jobs, wages and number of establishments. The website is meant as an economic aid, providing businesses with detailed insight into their customer bases.

In contrast, to Data For Cities, this site presents data in a pretty raw format, as a series of simple tables. However, the site provides a lot of tools to manipulate, filter and visualize data.

DataUSA

This website is focused on “turning data into knowledge”. The focus is not the raw data resources themselves, but the meaningful infographics and charts that can be extracted from them.

The project was created through the collaboration of Deloitte Digital and MIT Media Lab, with support for the data visualization coming from a company called Datawheel.

The website is meant to allow youths to assess the economic opportunities available to them: which cities are booming, what industries are thriving, where jobs are being offered. The idea is that access to this data allows society to “learn and better understand itself” and ultimately make more productive decisions.

NYC Open Data

This project is part of an initiative to improve accessibility, transparency and accountability within the city of New York. Data sets provided by agencies and organizations are used to measure public performance and provide a record of city activity. The goal of the project is to support economic development by creating meaningful public-private partnerships through shared data.

These datasets use an open API to give users extensive ability to make queries and interact with the data. This site lacks the playfulness and engaging quality of sites like Data For Cities and DataUSA, and it has a higher learning curve to use. But the open API allows anyone use this data to build their own website and tools for visualizing data.


Data only becomes useful when its arranged and presented in meaningful ways. This means that the quest for public data ownership is only half the journey — we also need clever, intuitive interfaces that make this data tell important stories.