Our understanding of gene expression has changed dramatically over the past decade, largely catalysed by technological developments. High-throughput experiments - microarrays and next-generation sequencing - have generated large amounts of genome-wide gene expression data that are collected in public archives. Added-value databases process, analyse and annotate these data further to make them accessible to every biologist. In this Review, we discuss the utility of the gene expression data that are in the public domain and how researchers are making use of these data. Reuse of public data can be very powerful, but there are many obstacles in data preparation and analysis and in the interpretation of the results. We will discuss these challenges and provide recommendations that we believe can improve the utility of such data.