Got a numbers geek student? The future for Big Data is… big.

In case you missed it, the New York Times offered two perspectives of Big Data over the past couple of Sundays. Relevance to thinking about colleges? Here’s one friend’s response to the Target article:

I’m also eager to share it with my son because I liked all the references to how valuable math skills are and the cool and sexy ways math is used out there in the real world.

Moneyball (film)

Image via Wikipedia

First, The Age of Big Data, by Steve Lohr. Most non-statisticians understand new uses of data by having read (or viewed) Moneyball by Michael Lewis. Another fine example is statistician Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight blog (now owned by the NYT) which he launched during the 2008 Presidential campaign (after he developed new baseball stats for Baseball Prospectus).

Lohr’s points about the ever-growing use of Big Data make this an article I’ll ask all three of our kids to read, even though only one is a real math geek. This will have an impact on their work, no matter the career choice.

The story is similar in fields as varied as science and sports, advertising and public health — a drift toward data-driven discovery and decision-making. “It’s a revolution,” says Gary King, director of Harvard’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science. “We’re really just getting under way. But the march of quantification, made possible by enormous new sources of data, will sweep through academia, business and government. There is no area that is going to be untouched.”

To grasp the potential impact of Big Data, look to the microscope, says Erik Brynjolfsson, an economist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management. The microscope, invented four centuries ago, allowed people to see and measure things as never before — at the cellular level. It was a revolution in measurement.

Data measurement, Professor Brynjolfsson explains, is the modern equivalent of the microscope. Google searches, Facebook posts and Twitter messages, for example, make it possible to measure behavior and sentiment in fine detail and as it happens.

In business, economics and other fields, Professor Brynjolfsson says, decisions will increasingly be based on data and analysis rather than on experience and intuition. “We can start being a lot more scientific,” he observes.

I heard about the following Sunday’s Times magazine cover story, How Companies Learn Your Secrets, from Mod Squad Julie on Friday night. Seems the hook — a parent learning from Target that his teen daughter was pregnant — made the Facebook rounds very quickly.

The article, written by Charles Duhigg, presents any number of topics for discussion — privacy, habit forming and changing, marketing cleaning products to American women, etc. — but front and center is the pivotal role of the statistician.

Andrew Pole had just started working as a statistician for Target in 2002, when two colleagues from the marketing department stopped by his desk to ask an odd question: “If we wanted to figure out if a customer is pregnant, even if she didn’t want us to know, can you do that?”

Pole has a master’s degree in statistics and another in economics, and has been obsessed with the intersection of data and human behavior most of his life. His parents were teachers in North Dakota, and while other kids were going to 4-H, Pole was doing algebra and writing computer programs. “The stereotype of a math nerd is true,” he told me when I spoke with him last year. “I kind of like going out and evangelizing analytics.”

What do you think? Is this the best current answer to the math student’s question, “When am I ever going to use this in real life?”


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One response to “Got a numbers geek student? The future for Big Data is… big.

  1. Pingback: How Companies Learn Your Secrets « News Worldwide

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