The Internet has already become a place for people to share knowledge, opinions, music and videos. Now, in a slightly geekier aspect of the same trend, social software is allowing people to share data too. More than 1 million data sets have been uploaded to the data-sharing site Swivel since its launch in December. And on 23 January, IBM labs launched Many Eyes, which allows users to visualize their data with tools previously available only to experts.

Once data are uploaded to these sites (which are still being tested), people can reanalyse the numbers, mix them with other data and visualize them in different ways. Swivel focuses on letting users combine data sets, with some basic ways to present the results such as scatter graphs and bar charts. Many Eyes allows users to generate more complicated graphs such as network diagrams, which depict nodes and connections within networks, and treemaps, which display data as groups of nested rectangles.

The idea is to make data analysis more democratic, as tools such as Google Earth have done for geographic visualization, says Fernanda Viégas of IBM's Visual Communication Lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “We want to provide the masses with access to visualization tools, especially interactive ones,” she says. Governments, international agencies and research organizations generate huge silos of publicly available data on almost every aspect of society, but the public has never been able to explore, share and discuss these data sets easily, she points out.

Making such tools available will not only empower individuals, Viégas predicts, the collective intelligence and expertise of users will result in new insights. “Just three weeks in, people were using some of the most sophisticated visualization types,” she says. Since Many Eyes launched, users have uploaded data and created graphics on everything from the stock price of Heineken against temperature, to collaborations of prostate cancer researchers, to co-occurrences of names in the New Testament.

The new sites might also provide a model for better communication among scientists, says Brent Edwards, director of the Starkey Hearing Research Center in Berkeley, California, who blogs on innovation in science. He points out that journals could use the Internet to share information and move science forward much more effectively, rather than being facsimiles of their print cousins, with static graphs and figures.

“I'm often frustrated by my inability to analyse in a different way data that are printed in peer-reviewed publications, when I'm interested in looking at a relationship that the authors didn't think of,” he says. If research organizations and journals linked the raw data behind papers to social software tools such as Swivel and Many Eyes, he argues, “it would have considerable value to the scientific community as a whole”.

David Lipman, director of the US National Center for Biotechnology Information in Bethesda, Maryland agrees, adding that his centre might explore related possibilities. He finds it ironic that scientists have been slow to adopt social software, given how useful it could be for them. “Scientists are more interested in their careers and grants than using tools that promote better communication and data sharing,” Lipman says.

He's optimistic that this attitude may change in the future, however, especially as a new generation — used to communicating through social sites such as MySpace — enters research.