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'Big data' analytics, number-crunching nation

If the presidential election says nothing else to CIOs, it demonstrates that 'big data' analytics and mobile apps are not technologies as usual.

Not all "big data" analytics are created equal. Not all real-time data is real or really matters. Not all killer mobile apps kill. That much can be surmised from even a cursory review of the digital weapons deployed in this presidential election, already dubbed the nerdiest in American history. But there can be no doubt that politics, like everything else, is entering the big data analytics world.

Whether the much-touted mobile app used by 34,000 Romney volunteers to relay real-time voter counts at the polls turned out to be "nothing short of a failure," as has been reported and denied, or was a match for the Mobile Pollwatcher app used by the Democratic party to rustle up voters to the polls, I'll leave to the politico-technocrats to judge. The Election Day mobile apps were designed to interact with the massive databases and big data analytics tools relied on by the dueling campaigns. And there's no doubt the data mining tools and predictive analytics used by Project Orca, the Romney campaign's effort to turn big data into meaningful action, will be compared to death with those used by Narwhal, the Obama campaign's massive IT system used to segment and target voters.

On the face of it, Orca didn't get its Narwhal. But technology? Technology, its history-making promise and terrible limitations on full display, loomed larger than ever on the political battlefields, big data in particular. The power of leveraging big data -- which requires being able to collect it and analyze it with the right data model -- was breathtaking in this election, as demonstrated by the polling done by such pollster nerds as Nate Silver, author of the FiveThirtyEight blog in The New York Times, and Princeton neuroscientist Sam Wang. Aggregating all the polls' results (which were calculated by collecting and analyzing varying amounts of big data), Silver and Wang and their ilk predicted the outcome of a political process nearly perfectly. Gut feelings, political persuasion, the timbre of one's voice -- those had nothing to do with the predictions. The pundit class ignored these big data conclusions at their peril, as one after another confessed how wrong they were -- a day late. "Politics as usual" is done with.

Politics, of course, is just realizing what savvy merchants have known for a long time: Aggregating statistics from many people makes human behavior predictable. Big data analytics overcomes the uncertainty of the variations among individuals.

As the power of big data to make accurate political predictions sunk in, I was reminded of nothing so much as Glik's, a family-owned business I covered as a retail reporter in St. Louis years ago. The Gliks have been merchants since 1897. In the modern era, their business had become a chain of 50-some fashion stores that offered national name-brand clothes in small towns in the Midwest, some with populations as small as 7,000. Come time for the obligatory story on Christmas sales and whether merchants would make their numbers that year, the big retailers would put out their hot picks and predictions for the season.

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This was the heyday of the "genius merchant": legends -- like media darling Millard "Mickey" Drexler, then of Gap -- who operated on instinct, who knew in their gut the right cut of coat or color for the season. When I needed a bead on the season, I made sure to call Jeff Glik, the son who was running the Glik's chain at the time. Between trips to New York, Jeff would be poring over weather data, surveying customers, shopping the competition, on the phone with managers from Missouri to Michigan, crunching the numbers to get just the right selection for each of the chain's stores. Way before the rise of the big data-driven retailer, he was doing his own version of Moneyball.

Politics -- along with everything else -- is catching up with retailers. We are a big data analytics, mobile app, real-time nation. Don't take my word for it. Gartner Inc. stirred headlines last month with its prediction that by 2015, 4.4 million IT jobs will be generated to support big data, generating 1.9 million jobs in the United States. Every big data-related job here will spawn three jobs outside of IT, for a total of 6 million U.S. jobs over the next four years. That's how much stock employers put in big data and in the analytics required for making information into something that matters. It's a job that will lash together mobile technology, social media and cloud computing. Gartner analyst Peter Sondergaard tried out the slogan "Nexus of Forces" to describe the "next age of computing." Everything that rises must converge.

The computers that caught your attention many years ago are having profound impacts on civilization, let alone on your role as CIO in this tornado of big-data mobile computing. If the presidential election proved nothing else (and for the record, I believe it proved a great deal), it drives home the point to CIOs that their job can't be about "technology as usual."

Let us know what you think about the column; email Linda Tucci, News Director .

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