How big data will transform politics, education and just about everything else

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Kenneth Cukier, Viktor Mayer-Schonberger and Matt McIlwain

Big data requires big thinkers. And some of Seattle’s top minds — from University of Washington computer scientist Oren Etzioni to Context Relevant CEO Stephen Purpura to Amazon.com’s Charlie Bell — turned out this week as Madrona Venture Group hosted a round table discussion on the topic with authors Viktor Mayer-Schonberger and Kenneth Cukier.

Madrona’s Matt McIlwain, an early investor in big data startup Farecast (now Bing Travel), laid out the importance of the trend in his opening remarks.

“We really believe that every one of our portfolio companies needs to be a big data-powered company in what they do,” said McIlwain.

That kicked off a fascinating discussion by Mayer-Schonberger and Cukier, authors of the new book Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think.

Big data certainly is one of the most frequently used tech buzz words of today, and with the book Mayer-Schonberger said that they tried “to go beyond the hype of big data” to look at how the abundance of data is transforming the world. Cukier said he got curious about the topic because he realized there’s “a lot of information in the world, and it just sticks around.”

Here are a few of the areas they think are ripe for disruption:

Education: “In the educational sector, we collect a lot of data. We are testing kids all of the time, and so forth. But we don’t do very much with it in the big picture of things. We have school boards decide which text books, but do we know which text book is good or bad? No, we rely on hunches and expert opinions. But we do have data now, especially as we move toward a world where we have tablets and similar electronic book delivery mechanisms, whether it is Amazon Kindle or whether it is the iPad. They all collect this information. Amazon knows how long you stay on each page. They know when you re-read a page, or a chapter over and over because you had difficulties with it. All of that information stays in Amazon. It would be incredibly important for the author or the publisher of the text book to improve the text book, but also important for boards of education to decide which text book is actually better. We should try to make empirical decisions about the choices that we face in education, and I think that is an area potentially of huge value.” —Mayer-Schonberger

bigdatabooks11Politics: “One of the differentiators (in the last presidential election) is that Romney was using older data. It was smaller. It was less complete. But it was also just older, and they were running simulations based on older voter behavior data. Both candidates had every single registered voter on their roles…. But (Obama’s team) ran the election every single night. They ran basically 66,000 simulations of the election, every single night…. Every single student of politics … who is going to work on a campaign is going to have to study stats, trying to figure it out. And politics will have changed forever. I don’t think in America we are going to have this sor tof anecdotal-based election anymore. It is all going to be about data. And there are going to be benefits and drawbacks to it. The benefits are clear and you could imagine a world where politicians are more responsive to issues, and try to engage voters … so we have a greater social impact. The drawback is that … it could look like big data pandering … and every candidate will have to be a forked-tongue candidate …because the segmentation is going to be so precise.” —Cukier.

Health Care: “The whole paradigm has changed. The default settings on using medical data has completely shifted. And now we are in an environment that the gains we could get from taking, say a decade’s worth of health care data, every single piece of data that we could collect and learning from it, is so incredibly amazing that the risks may have stayed the same, but now the gains are so high that we are fools not to do it. But, of course, law and policy has to catch up with our imagination.” —Cukier

Automotive: “Like the human body — where we can collect so much data in the hospital or from a Fitbit or other devices — so too the car is just beautiful…. Commercially, the barrier to entry to get into the vehicle is really high. You need to have ties with all of the car makers, and seduce them with a good offer. The car is basically a computer with four wheels. The instrumentation in there is fantastic. It is a high value product, and people pay a recurring cost for it to run — whether it is gasoline or whether it is service and maintenance. Suddenly, you put lots of devices in there, and learn from the car. And the car goes by billboards. We sell billboards based on roadways, but we have no idea who is in them. If we can identify that this is when the professionals drive this road, let’s show them stuff for Heineken. And here’s when delivery men are on the road, let’s show them Budweiser ads, and charge differently. This is a silly example, but it shows what is to play for. It is the first inning of big data.” —Cukier

Publishing: “Big data meets publishing. Are all of the tape recorders off? (Laughs)…. We were doing a big data book, and we were meeting with our fabulous publisher … and he was a superb influence and superb sort of third author almost on the book. His team presents us with cover designs, and so they say: ‘What do you think?’ And we were like, well, this is the big data age, so can we run a focus group and get some data? And they were like: ‘We’ve been in the business forever. We know what kind of covers work well.’ And, we were like, no you don’t, you are like old hunches and experienced guys, but you don’t know. Show us the data. And they were like: ‘What do you mean, show us the data? We are the experts.’ But chapter 7 — The Demise of the Expert — have you not read it? We had this really interesting moment where old business, or traditional business, meets sort of big data where we had a completely empirical approach to everything.” —Mayer-Schonberger

  • Guest

    This shift towards sharing more and more data with companies has it’s positives and it’s negatives. The idea that a billboard can adjust to an oncoming car to present an ad that might attract the driver’s attention is interesting and has a cool factor. The problem is the telematics systems being integrated with outside connections opens a massive can of worms for hacking. As cars are using computers to control steering, acceleration, braking, etc, you can get an idea of what insane things can (will/do) happen. Tadayoshi Kohno already showed the world what can be done via a phone to take over a cars controls. It’s an impressive display of how little people realize what’s really possible in cars we already drive today.