Who are the data Samurai?

The words “sexy” and “data” used to be on opposite ends of the cool spectrum. As far as I can tell, data was officially welcomed to the sexy party in 2009 after Google’s Chief Economist, Hal Varian, described statistician as the next sexy job. And by sexy, Varian meant valuable.

“Because now we really do have essentially free and ubiquitous data. So the complimentary scarce factor is the ability to understand that data and extract value from it,” Varian told business journal McKinsey Quarterly. Following Varian’s comment, Google’s Senior Vice President for Product Management Jonathan Rosenberg (who has since resigned) elevated data from sexy to Samurai.

Rosenberg wrote an internal email for Google employees, which he subsequently posted to the official Google blog, stating:

“But as powerful as it can be in politics, data has the potential to be even more transformational in business. Oil fueled the Industrial Revolution, but data will fuel the next generation of growth. (…) It leads to intelligence, and the intelligent business is the successful business, regardless of its size. Data is the sword of the 21st century, those who wield it well, the Samurai.”

Which begs the question, who exactly are the Samurai among us? Personally, I’m on the lookout for journalist-type data Samurai. These are groups and individuals that not only produce outstanding data-based stories, but also adeptly wield the sword in the name of a robust business model.

As Rosenberg suggested, data will make or break many 21st century businesses, especially ones that rely on the web. Perhaps a data Samurai list could be constructed by cataloging businesses whose profits, particularly internet-driven profits, are on the rise. Charles Duhigg provided an excellent candidate for this list in The New York Times Magazine this weekend. His article is titled “How Companies Learn Your Secrets,” and in it he reveals that Target is perhaps one of the most masterful Samurai of all.

And these Samurai, should we applaud their skill, or be wary of their power? Target uses newly-sexy statisticians, to build algorithms that deduce not only your current shopping habits, but your likely future shopping choices. The primary example Duhigg gives is that Target identifies women who are potentially pregnant based on purchases many women make in their nine-month preparation period. Then, as intelligent and powerful wielders of the data sword, proceed to market as many baby-related products as they possibly can to those women.

However, Target found it can only market these products in a way that doesn’t reveal its deduced knowledge. It makes people uncomfortable since that knowledge is a product of data customers don’t realize Target collects and algorithms customers don’t want sleuthing around their private lives. Instead of waltzing into customers’ lives as a traditionally-clad, clearly powerful data Samurai, Target dresses its knowledge up as serendipitously-placed ads and not-too-frequent perfectly-timed product suggestions.

I am neither applauding nor condemning such marketing techniques, I am simply paying attention to them. In a data-driven world, I am aware that I am a potential target of quantitative analysis. I don’t feel threatened because, though I’m not training to be a Samurai, I am becoming “data aware.” Since data is ubiquitous, I plan to use it for the purpose of telling stories and making strong journalistic claims about the world. That’s not exactly to say “watch your back” to Target, but perhaps “watch your data.”

Image credit: Samurai drawn by Dustin Eiler

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One thought on “Who are the data Samurai?

  1. Emily- thanks for bringing my attention to this article- really interesting. I feel so conflicted about data like this, because on one hand, I get excited about the potential to find stories in large data sets, but on the other hand, I can start to feel pretty paranoid about the information collected about me by corporations, and bought and sold to other corporations. I am tempted to avoid shopping at Target if I find out that I am pregnant, but really, I know that they are just an example of an industry wide practice, which is definitely here to stay and probably growing.

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