Sometimes at big, chaotic tech conference it’s best to look for inspiration in unlikely places -- like the title of one of the dozens of sessions meant to draw from among the mob scurrying from demo to meeting to to talk to funding pitch. And so it was at the Collision conference in Las Vegas this week, which offered a session called, “It’s the Data, Stupid.” No, it’s hardly an epiphany that data is a big deal. But that wasn’t the point of the session nor of the many conversations I had with attendees about the state of data today. What’s clear is that we are nearing a tipping point with big data, a new era in which the tools, technology and practices exist to democratize data. More and more frequently, the insights that analyzed data provide can be used by teams throughout an organization to make immediate decisions that help move a business forward. Listen to Amanda Kahlow, founder and CEO of 6Sense, talk about the new ways businesses view the potential of data. “Five years ago, people were investing in the back end technology,” Kahlow, whose company provides predictive analytics for marketers, said during a Collision panel that I moderated Wednesday. At the time, technologies like Hadoop were all the rage and received all the buzz, she said. “Today,” Kahlow continued, “it’s all about the applications. How do we use this data to drive something forward? And how do we use it got get measurable results?” Yes, in Jeopardy-like fashion, she phrased her answer in the form of a question. And it’s true that the democratization of data has a ways to go. The vision of just the right insight being available to just the right person at just the right time is a work in progress. But plenty of tools are out there and they are being put to good and profitable use. Take the example of marketers, as Richard Frankel, president of Rocket Fuel, a programatic media-buying company, did during the aforementioned “It’s the Data, Stupid” session. “For marketers, the job is changing,” he said. “It used to be a ton of people guessing and doing research: of the torrent of data, which tiny bits could they use? At human scale, that was all the data they would spend time with. Now, with all the technology that’s come along, all the assumptions of how much data could be used and how fast it could be used have gone out the window.” Machine learning, natural language processing, the ability to wrangle unstructured data and render it meaningful has changed everything. It’s as if data is moving through an evolution that is familiar in the world of technology. When the first personal computers were developed. Visionaries were wowed. A complete computer that you could fit on a desk! For others, the question was: But what can you do with it? Then came spreadsheets and word processors, which helped democratize the PC. And then the Internet, which broke everything wide open. Hundreds of companies big and small are scrambling to be the word processors and spreadsheets of the big data era. The choice and different approaches can be daunting for those who are leading companies struggling with their own data needs. But few, if any, doubt that it’s time to do something to make data more valuable for workers throughout an enterprise. The pace of competition won’t allow for the old ways, in which a mid-level manager comes up with a question he or she needs answered. Then it’s: Send the question to the analytics team and wait for an answer. By the time an answer comes back, the world has changed. There is no question that we’re in an inflection point,” says Stuart Frankel, CEO of Narrative Science, a company that uses artificial intelligence to generate narrative summaries of data. “Where we started with the data, it was about data capture. That’s really what the data has been about -- monitoring, tagging etc. There was almost this blind lust for data.” The thinking, says Frankel, who appeared on the panel with Kahlow, was that if we just gathered as much data as we could, we’d figure out what to do with it, eventually. “It turns out the collecting of the data and the aggregating of data is ultimately one step and the first step in what I think will be many” on the way to where the focus on data pays off, “because we can make better decisions.” To look at the PC evolution analogy, it may be that we’re still in the early spreadsheet era when it comes to big data. “We are just hitting the cusp of what is about to hit us and about what data can do,” Kahlow said. “Data is going to change everything that we do. And every industry and every vertical is going to be disrupted. Today is a different world. I’m really excited to see what’s to come.” And rest assured that it is coming. Photo of Richard Frankel and panel by Mike Cassidy. Photo of IBM PC by Paul Sullivan published under Creative Commons license. Mike Cassidy is BloomReach’s storyteller. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org ; follow him on Twitter at @mikecassidy.