Remember the experience, from not too many years ago, of trying to tell a travel agent where you wanted to go while they got to look at a computer screen filled with tasty information? I always found it very unsatisfying. The thing I really wanted to do was just see what the heck it was the travel agent saw. Every profession has aspects of it that relate to skill, to training, and to simple access to information. Travel agents have effectively vanished because the main thing they did was control access to secret information.
Fortune magazine recently ran a cover story on Zillow about exactly this topic. It turns out that the same guys who made the Expedia travel service went on to found Zillow. Here’s what one of them, Richard Barton, had to say about information hunger.
“When we were doing focus groups on Expedia, consumers would tell us they could hear the tap-tap-tap of the keyboard when talking to a travel agent, and they wanted to jump through the phone and look at the screen,” says Barton, sitting in his office in the company’s Seattle headquarters. “Expedia was about satisfying that impulse, and that’s also what we’re doing at Zillow. The hunger for information about real estate is infinite.”
There is a growing trend of making all kinds of data available on the web. But this leads to the problem of interpretation. What does it all mean? Is it accurate? So tools for mass interactive validation and sense-making are popping up too, tools like Swivel and IBM’s Many Eyes.
But getting back to real estate, I like this little heat map application called Neighboroo. It lets you superimpose all kinds of housing, property, and census data atop the U.S. map. As is common with these kinds of tools, a lot of it is fiddly-fiddling to demonstrate something you already knew, e.g. New York City is expensive. And there’s always the dangerous temptation of inferring causation from correlation. African American population density fits together neatly with hurricane likelihood. But where do you go from there? For all this data, do you see anything that actually surprises you?