The use of math and data mining can enhance fields such as politics and medicine that do not traditionally rely on computation, BusinessWeek senior writer Stephen Baker told students on Thursday.
Before an audience of about 25 at a Davenport College Master’s Tea, Baker argued that math can be used to understand and predict behavior based on the data people constantly generate. Baker — author of “The Numerati,” published in 2008 — explored the ways in which this data can be used to formulate mathematical models. These models can then anticipate the behaviors of workers, shoppers and voters, among others.
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Without realizing it, people constantly generate usable data that can then be mined through a variety of methods, from automated sensors in houses to credit card records of shopping habits.
“Everyone in this room pretty much spews data nonstop,” Baker told the crowd.
Data mining can help make medical diagnoses, as Baker discovered while observing an Intel research operation in Portland, Ore. In the project, sensors placed in the homes of consenting senior citizens attempted to measure every aspect of the person’s life, including their sleeping pattern, movements and eating habits. The data was then used to detect patterns in the person’s behavior — and deviations from these patterns, which might indicate the emergence of an illness.
For example, the periodic television appearances of Michael J. Fox allowed researchers to notice the changes in his movements and voice patterns, Baker said, which, if noted at the time, could have helped diagnose his Parkinson’s disease and perhaps delay its onset.
Mathematical models can also play a role in politics to target swing votes.
The traditional method of collecting data — polling — is not always accurate due to what Baker called widespread political ignorance and apathy in America. To improve on accuracy, he said, researchers analyzed deeper values by conducting lengthy interviews with subjects about their hopes, fears and thoughts about religion, for example.
The data was then sent to analysts who identified the “tribes” — groups created by common beliefs — which were then further grouped by three key values: righteousness, community and freedom.
The people in the group favoring righteousness tended to be Republican, while those favoring community tended to be Democrats. The members of the freedom group were largely swing voters.
Armed with this information, political groups can target voters by culling the population for certain behavior patterns, Baker said.
The idea for “The Numerati” came out of the first rejected draft of an article for BusinessWeek, Baker said, in which he first explored the broader applications of math.
“Let’s do a story on math! No one ever does a story on math,” Baker said, recalling his excitement when pitching the story.
Baker’s explanation of the ways data can be used to target certain populations did not surprise Yen Duong ’10, but she said she was nonetheless slightly disturbed.
“Sounds like a conspiracy theory,” she said. “As a math person, I expected that anyone with a large amount of data could use it for a mathematical model to optimize strategies, in advertising, for example.”
Baker’s work also coveys the importance of math by showing how it is integrated in and can impact society, mathematics and philosophy major Shira Helft ’10 said.
Baker, in his 22nd year at BusinessWeek, first started as the magazine’s Mexico City bureau manager.