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October 05, 2016  |  permalink

Data Size Matters, But Smarts Matter More

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(I’m proud to have joined the United States Military Academy’s Network Science Center at West Point as an associated researcher. In theory, that means working with NSC senior fellow Daniel Evans on refining social network models to analyze highly ambiguous environments and predict where precise interventions will make the biggest difference. In practice, it means working with Evans and his crew at Storm King Analytics to help publicize this work and to look for non-military applications. This post is drawn from SKA’s weekly newsletters; earlier installments are further below.)

Before LinkedIn cashed out to Microsoft this summer, CEO Jeff Weiner liked to describe the social network’s culmination as the “economic graph,” a platform encompassing every relationship between the 3.3 billion people employed in the planet’s formal workforce. It’s a classic case of the totalizing logic of Big Data — once we have everything, we’ll know everything — but if LinkedIn users know anything, it’s that the network’s signal-to-noise ratio has proven inversely proportional to its size. The problem with Big Data is that it is simultaneously too big and never big enough.

Using LinkedIn to identify sales prospects illustrates another problem with even the biggest formal datasets — sometimes the person nominally in charge isn’t the one who decides the outcome. One of the foundational concepts in social network analysis is “brokerage” and the related notion of “structural holes.” The University of Chicago’s Ronald Burt was the first to demonstrate how the individuals who manage to bridge these gaps between cliques within organizations produce more ideas, make better decisions, and prosper accordingly — while also being largely invisible. As Burt once told Inc. magazine, a network like LinkedIn “doesn’t answer the question of ‘why them?’ It assumes you know.”

So, what do you do when you don’t know?

This is the question we ask daily at Storm King Analytics, whether it’s in support of our colleagues at West Point’s Network Science Center or on behalf of clients trying to make better sense of opaque environments — who really drives decision-making and how do I influence them to achieve my goals? That’s not a question that can be answered with Big Data; you need something… smarter. Call it “Smart Data,” for lack of a better catchphrase.

A case in point is our work on behalf of a California biotech firm seeking to make inroads in Morocco, which would appear to be fertile territory for companies invested in battling cancer. In recent years, the royal family, led by King Mohammed VI, has led an ambitious campaign to detect and combat cancer early in their subjects. The King’s wife, Royal Highness Princess Lalla Salma, created the Lalla Salma Foundation to marshal public and private partners for help with screening and prevention. But standing in the startup’s way were pharma giants such as Roche, which have operated in the country for more than 50 years. Outmaneuvering them to reach the royals would be difficult, to say the least. So, who was key?

Our approach is to meld qualitative research and cultural expertise with quantitative analysis — half smarts and half data. In this case, we started by mapping the people and institutions commanding power and influence around this particular issue. Broadly speaking, we found four groups with outsized clout:

1. The royal family and their senior advisors. The King of Morocco possesses vast executive powers and keeps counsel with a tight-knit circle of advisors.

2. Société Nationale d’Investissement (SNI). A large private holding company controlled by the royal family. The group has a huge footprint, estimated to be worth 3% of Moroccan GDP.

3. Collège Royale. A secondary school located within the royal palace in Rabat. It specializes in the education of princes and princesses. Selected children of other families may attend, and historically the classmates of royal family members command great status within Morocco.

4. Authenticity and Modernity Party (Parti Authenticité et Modernité-PAM). A political party founded by Fouad Ali El Himma, advisor to King Mohammed VI and the former interior minister. From its founding, it has been a pro-monarchy party with the implicit backing of the King.

Starting with individuals belonging to these groups, we then added the names of influential members within Morocco’s medical and philanthropic establishment, including Lalla Salma Foundation members and prominent physicians. Populating our model with publicly available biographical details sourced from news outlets, financial databases, Wikipedia, and LinkedIn (why not?), we used these noisy-but-effective portraits to identify connections and create network quantifiably depicting the social capital invested in those relationships.

The result looked like this:

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Your eyes don’t deceive you. Our analysis confirms Moulay Tahar Alaoui is far and away the most connected person on this issue in the entire Moroccan establishment.

Wait, who?

Moulay Tahar Alaoui is a prominent doctor practicing at a prominent hospital, the Centre National de Sante Reproductrice — and a royal family insider. He’s not exactly an unknown commodity — he sits on the Lalla Slama Foundation Board and is a member of its Scientific Council — but he wields no decision-making powers of his own. He’s the bridge over the yawning structural hole between Morocco’s medical establishment and its royals. He’s your way in.

Would LinkedIn’s data scientists have arrived at the same conclusion? (After all, we did borrow some of their data.) We don’t think so. Just as Ronald Burt builds his models of organizations through painstaking interviews with stakeholders, our smart data approach combines the qualitative insights of experts with the quantitative muscle of our proprietary to discover connectors like Alaoui hiding in plain sight.

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Greg Lindsay is a journalist, urbanist, futurist, and speaker. He is a senior fellow of the New Cities Foundation — where he leads the Connected Mobility Initiative  — and the director of strategy for LACoMotion, a new mobility festival coming to the Arts District of Los Angeles in November 2017.

He is also a non-resident senior fellow of The Atlantic Council’s Strategic Foresight Initiative, a visiting scholar at New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation Policy & Management, a contributing writer for Fast Company and co-author of Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next.

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