The Numerati – Drilling through the Data

Book review excerpted from WSJ: “Drilling Through Data”, September 15, 2008

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The Numerati, Stephen Baker, (Houghton Mifflin

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The world is buried in data, great banks and drifts of the stuff. In recent years a new technology has emerged: computer programs that will drill through it all to pick out patterns and trends — information that may be useful to marketers, politicians, employers, doctors, matchmakers or national-security analysts.

Such programs are extraordinarily sophisticated, and their creators — the “Numerati” — need to be very clever indeed. Using “data mining,” they seek out veins of useful ore in the mountains of facts that computers accumulate every day.

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In “The Numerati,” Stephen Baker offers a highly readable and fascinating account of the number-driven world we now live in.

He shows us, for instance, how political consultants, mining databases that track consumer and “lifestyle” preferences, sort us into tribes by behavioral proxy. Cat owner? Likely Democrat. NRA member? Probably Republican. Mailings and phone calls can then be targeted more accurately.

Health professionals, especially when treating older patients, are now monitoring such things as weight, body temperature and pulse by having a computer follow data streams from sensors on clothing or even from sensor-laden “magic carpets” laid around the house. Disturbing patterns prompt the computer to signal a problem.

The Numerati are taking over dating services, too. How do you find that special one in a million? By mining the data of the million. How do you improve your own chances of being found? By the same techniques that companies use to show up first in a Google inquiry — “search engine optimization,” now a flourishing industry.

The Numerati are even mining the output of bloggers, those stream-of-consciousness online diarists and self-promoters. “What makes the blog world especially valuable to marketers,” Mr. Baker writes, is “its unfiltered immediacy.” What do consumers think of your new product? What desires are still not satisfied by products of this kind? You can commission a poll or wait for the sales figures to come in . . . or you can read the blogs. Better yet, you can hire Numerati to write programs that will read them for you, since there are now more than 20 million bloggers in the U.S. alone.

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Full article:

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