Surprising Insights From Big Data

If you talk to a Silicon Valley-type, chances are the words "Big Data" will pop into the conversation. It's basically a really, really big dataset of things and facts - and the hot new thing is to figure out how to make lots of money from it.

For example, with the right data, a restaurant chain can figure out whether a new location has the right demographic or level of competition, a gas station can find the busiest highway off-ramps, and so on.

Big Data can also yield insights that are quite surprising. Quentin Hardy of The New York Times' Bits Blog gave us a few examples:

... if you buy a used car, your best bet is an orange one. Data scientists at Kaggle, a pattern recognition start-up in which Mr. Elbaz has invested, have matched previously separate data sets on buyers, colors and after-purchase problems. They figured out that if a car’s original owner chose an odd color, the car was most likely a means of self-expression. That self-identification raises the odds that the owner cared more than usual for the vehicle.

... I was speaking with the founder of an African mobile phone company, called CellTel. He told me that his company realized that they could predict the location of impending massacres in the Congo, because there were spikes in the sale of prepaid phone cards.

At first the company researchers thought that this was because there were more calls around the planning or fleeing of the massacre. In fact, the reason was that the prepaid cards were denominated in dollars, not the local currency. People, sensing impending chaos, wanted to have something valuable they could carry with them that was protected against local inflation.

... If you watch a movie that ends in a number, you will probably think less of it than if it had a different title. Numbers usually indicate sequels, and most sequels are bad.


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