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.
There is plenty of anecdotal evidence of the payoff from data-first thinking. The best-known is still “Moneyball,” the 2003 book by Michael Lewis, chronicling how the low-budget Oakland A’s massaged data and arcane baseball statistics to spot undervalued players. Heavy data analysis had become standard not only in baseball but also in other sports, including English soccer, well before last year’s movie version of “Moneyball,” starring Brad Pitt.
Retailers, like Walmart and Kohl’s, analyze sales, pricing and economic, demographic and weather data to tailor product selections at particular stores and determine the timing of price markdowns. Shipping companies, like U.P.S., mine data on truck delivery times and traffic patterns to fine-tune routing.
Online dating services, like Match.com, constantly sift through their Web listings of personal characteristics, reactions and communications to improve the algorithms for matching men and women on dates. Police departments across the country, led by New York’s, use computerized mapping and analysis of variables like historical arrest patterns, paydays, sporting events, rainfall and holidays to try to predict likely crime “hot spots” and deploy officers there in advance.
Measurement and data is quite useful and needs to be strategically to get the right things done.