Advocates of open data are excited by the possibilities -- as no doubt are certain governments interested in more sophisticated ways of snooping on their citizens. Mobile phones allow us to become nodes in a human sensor network, feeding data sets on the weather or the state of water pumps. Big data visualized in real time can help to manage traffic congestion or to allow medical workers to better allocate supplies in hospitals.
"Data visualization will bring us deep knowledge. It will bring us awareness of things that have been too data-intensive to get good answers from in the past," says Iliinsky. "It will get us answers more quickly, if we can collect and analyze the data more quickly than we have in the past. And it's going to show us areas that we may have overlooked." Take the case of Dataminr, an analytics company that has just announced a partnership with Twitter that will presumably give the company greater access to tweets and metadata. The company claims that its system got wind of Osama bin Laden’s death minutes before news media -- minutes that could have enabled the company’s financial clients to get ahead of major moves in the markets.
No one should expect social media analysis to replace surveys, existing early-warning networks, or traditional ethnographic research any time soon. Yet if these data visualization tools can make good on their promise, we'll soon have some powerful new ways of telling stories about our social universe with a speed and clarity that would have been hard to imagine just a few years ago. If we want to take a meaningful snapshot of the next iteration of Tahrir Square, reaching for a camera will no longer be our only option.