Big Data

Free data platforms: How to choose a good one

Free online tools for understanding data abound, each promising to help your business make sense of its data troves. But how to choose one? Here are the factors to consider.

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Image: iStockphoto.com/NicoElNino

Is your business interested in getting started with data analytics, but not sure where to start? There are several routes to becoming skilled in data science—such as enrolling in a degree program or a training bootcamp. But for those who want to begin applying analytics to data sets without formal training, there's another option: Free software platforms.

Free platforms are nothing new, and there are dozens to choose from. So selecting one is not necessarily an easy task.

"We've seen a huge period of innovation in data science, driven by a number of different factors," said Hugh Owen, senior vice president of product marketing at MicroStrategy. "There continues to be more data produced, and enterprises and organizations have greater and easier access to that data."

Ten years ago, Owen said, everything was in a relational database. But today, "big data" means that there are a slew of different ways to capture and access data.

MicroStrategy, a software company focusing on enterprise users, has been around for over 25 years. Its desktop platform, MicroStrategy 10, aims to help businesses make more intelligent, data-based decisions. The tool was just made completely free, in an effort to make it easy for beginners to acquaint themselves with data mining, dashboarding and visualization, said Owen.

Owen says MicroStrategy stands out in its organic approach to the platform. "We've never added functionality or enhanced the product by acquiring technology or acquiring companies or merging other technology into ours," he said. "That means that whether you're a sales rep who's looking at information on your iPad before meeting a client, or an analyst doing predictive or prescriptive analysis, or an executive getting a report through a dashboard on your MacBook Air, all of those different pieces of the puzzle all tie back into the same system."

The program, he said, is highly integrated. If those three people are looking at revenue, for instance, the metric would be the same for all three. "If you change the definition of that forecasted metric, wherever it exists, across 1,000 or 10,000 or 100,000 different reports, would all be instantly updated to reflect that new calculation," he said.

SEE: Job description: Big data modeler (Tech Pro Research)

Of course, said Owen, MicroStrategy isn't the only company to offer this kind of a service—most vendors offer a free version of their product. Tableau has a free version of the software, he said, although, "if you want to share it, you have to publicly promote it via their cloud." Also, Microsoft offers PowerBI with "a lightweight, free version," he said.

The end goal for MicroStrategy is, presumably, to have users add features to the product. "You can be incredibly successful within one minute, 10 minutes, an hour," said Owen. "We want to make it so easy for you to have that positive experience with MicroStrategy that doesn't require any additional complexities such as getting a purchase order within your organization or doing any of those additional points."

SEE: 3 career paths to becoming a data scientist (TechRepublic)

"Ultimately, we hope people are so successful with desktop that they then want to mature their implementation and add additional layers of sophistication to what they've built," Owen said.

According to Gartner analyst Alexander Linden free tools like these are common—but choosing one is difficult. He said that H2O.ai, KNIME, and Google's Tensorflow offer "some of the best" free versions.

Whether you decide to formally enroll in a data science program or tinker with the free tools on your own, there are plenty of jobs available when you've mastered the skill. Here's TechRepublic's list of data science jobs that are available today, if you're eager to get a peek at what's out there.

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About Hope Reese

Hope Reese is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers the intersection of technology and society, examining the people and ideas that transform how we live today.

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