It was the half-Jewish, balding, preternaturally pale gay data geek in charge of the FiveThirtyEight Blog who helped alert America that President Barack Obama would be reelected President long before election day. Now, Nate Silver is being heralded for demonstrating how accurate data can be in predicting outcomes. And by doing so, Silver may have inadvertently done more to mainstream tech’s Next Big Thing than anyone in Silicon Valley to date.
For about the last couple of years, LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman has been telling anyone who will listen that Web 3.0 would be all about Big Data. Why? Data has been piling up under the interfaces of technologies we use at work, at home and at play every single day, but, relatively speaking, very little is being done with it.
Hoffman has been predicting – correctly, in my view – that the next big thing in tech will be the ways in which we harness and wrangle and analyze and finally wrest meaning from all that data. But while plenty of guys like me – people who work every day in tech la-la-land – agree with Hoffman, most normal people are still grappling with Web 2.0 concepts.
Nate Silver may have changed all that.
By predicting the outcome of the race for President with 100 percent accuracy – including how each of the so-called swing states would vote – he’s become an overnight sensation. With appearances on “The Daily Show”, virtually every news network, and on blogs all over the Web, Silver is the guy everyone wants to speak to. His book, “The Signal and the Noise” has seen an 800 percent increase in sales since election day and is the number two best-seller on Amazon.
He’s got his own celebrity-driven Twitter hashtags and his Internet memes are still roaring. Still, this guy is the real deal. His data-driven approach to polling analysis and race-prediction follows from his deep and celebrated experience in baseball and poker game predictions. He’s notable for his dispassionate, emotionless diagnoses of observable facts. For those of us in the marketing profession, Silver’s mien and analytical genius is not only enviable, it’s now the gold standard. We all want (or should want) to be like him.
But it’s the mainstreaming of that genius and the power of dispassionate data analysis that holds more promise. His predictions in the lead-up to the election spawned so much controversy – with Obama supporters hanging on Silver’s every word and Romney supporters spinning out vast conspiracy theories – that everyday Americans tuned into the idea that data has power. Those who relied on gut-driven data analysis were proven to be disastrously wrong, while those who relied on empirical data analysis won the day. And it all played out on national TV in sometimes spectacular fashion.
Silicon Valley is working hard trying to get the everyman excited about Big Data. I mean, Reid Hoffman is no schlep. And services like The Alteryx Analytics Gallery let any normal person tap into prepackaged data analytics apps to crunch numbers in a whole variety of ways to see what happens. In the run-up to the election, you could see how a given ZIP code might vote based on polling numbers and freely available stuff like census data. Its Presidential Election App did about as well as the FiveThirtyEight Blog on election day.
But it’s likely only one guy will go down in history as waking Americans to the power of data, and a bona fide data geek named Nate Silver may just be that guy.