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  • Thomas Thurston

Innovators: may the analytics be with you

Updated: Apr 3

I have mixed feelings about the new Star Wars movie this year.  I’m going to see it – that was decided 37 years ago – I’m just not sure if the experience will be a delight or bitter, hollow disappointment. It’s happening and there’s no stopping it. I just hope it won’t hurt.

That’s how most people feel about using algorithms and analytics in innovation – especially corporate innovation. Are innovation analytics happening? Yes. Are they changing things forever? Definitely. We all just hope it will be more like Han Solo instead of Jar Jar Binks.

An example of how analytics can help innovators rather than hurting is Signals Group. Based in Israel, Signals helps big companies harvest and visualize data from a wide range of sources (ex. IP databases, social media, geo-spacial APIs) to better understand markets before jumping in. That’s an upside.

An example of how algorithms can hurt is when your mobile phone’s auto-correct says there are “meth and crack whores” in your kitchen instead of a “mess of crackers.” That’s a downside.

While analytics companies like Signals have begun to change the toolkits of innovators, it’s only the beginning. To date, most analytic tools and brainpower have focused on the “Big 3” questions:

Question 1:  How can I use data to better understand and manage security threats (ex. Department of Defense)? National security and intelligence is the grandfather of big data. The Internet itself traces back to ARPA and DARPA. Another domain the world’s best quants used to flock to was the insurance industry, where great actuaries were demi-gods.

Question 2: How can I use data to beat the stock market? Next came the Wall Street quants, like Thomas Peterffy and what’s now Interactive Brokers. Algorithmic trading caught on like wildfire and became around 70% of all activity on US stock markets.

Question 3: How can I use data to better understand people and send them more effective ads (ex. Google, Facebook)? Now we’re in the age of quant advertizing, where every eye-twitch is analyzed, literally, to tickle our shopping impulses.

Until very recently, unless your career was anchored around the Big 3 you could safely ignore statistics, data and all that high-tech number crunching hoo-hah. But lately there’s been a new bloom in analytics, outside the Big 3, that seems to have only hit its stride around 2011. That’s just my opinion. Sure, one could argue it began in the 1990s, 80s, 60s or even back with Al-Kindi in 801 AD. I’m not here to start a historical debate, but to share my own feeling that gravity seemed to shift a few years ago and analytics startups began popping up everywhere.

The growing swarm of analytics startups is crossing fields as diverse as real estate, energy, human resources, supply chain, healthcare, agriculture and entertainment. There are even analytics to help you analyze all your analytics.

Storm Trooper

Innovation has always been associated with creativity, inspiration and the human gut; nothing as robotic as an algorithm. This artistic nerve was relatively untouched by the degree of analytics now coursing through the veins of national security, stocks, advertising, and countless new frontiers. Yet today innovation analytics have finally arrived.

Like Star Wars, some innovation analytics lift us to new heights, whereas others may implode. Some will thrill us and spark our imaginations, while others may be bitter, hollow disappointments. It’s happening and there’s no stopping it. I just hope it won’t hurt.

Join us in Boston this month to for a roundtable discussion with Gil Sadeh, CEO of Signals, and Frank Moss, former CEO of Tivoli and former Director of the MIT Media Lab. I’ll be there too.


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