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Hollywood’s love affair with Big Data (before anyone knew what to call it)

After the 2011 hit “Moneyball,” every major league front office employs a data-driven strategy to assemble their rosters.

Moneyball Sony Pictures

Like Silicon Valley, Hollywood has long harbored a fascination with Big Data. Long before anyone came up with a catchy name for it, the possibilities and outcomes of big data analysis have captured the imaginations of screenwriters and directors for years, and their portrayals can offer some lessons for business leaders about the best ways to use and analyze data.

While many of these depictions stretch beyond what’s possible today — and most veer into utter ridiculousness (we’re talking about you, “Lawnmower Man”) — they showcase the immense potential of data when organizations can surface actionable insights on demand. Here are five takeaways from a sampling of movies and TV shows with big data-centered plots:

House of Cards (2013 - now)

As the latest season of “House of Cards” tells us, everyone, even the President of the United States, has trouble hiring the analytics experts they need. Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood eventually woos Aiden, the top data scientist in the country, for an undercover surveillance project. Although the operation is highly illegal, Aiden takes the job because it gives him the opportunity to blaze new paths.

Obviously, no company should bend or break laws like Frank does in “House of Cards.” But with global demand for data scientists projected to exceed supply by more than 50 percent by the year 2018, generous salaries are just table stakes. The best data scientists want the opportunity to explore, make big discoveries and solve important problems. To retain them and get the maximum results, provide space and remove barriers.

I, Robot (2004)

In “I, Robot,” the supercomputer VIKI leverages massive amounts of data and computational power, appearing to create a safer city. However, in the end we learn that VIKI’s analytics have drawn an incorrect (hopefully) assumption that humans must be either put under a robotic martial law or exterminated. VIKI’s ultimate problem was a poorly defined objective at the moment of her creation, which allowed her to stray from the path on which she was intended.

The right objectives are big enough to matter but simple enough to solve. And they don’t overconstrain the “how.” Good goals (for instance, what are the factors that drive customer longevity?) will help your team overcome the challenges of moving discoveries into production. Delivering strong ROI nurtures a data-driven culture.

Person of Interest (2011 - now)

For example, in the hit CBS TV series, “Person of Interest,” an ex-CIA agent and a computer genius use an intelligent computer system to prevent violent crimes. While the system’s AI capabilities are far advanced beyond what is possible today, a key component to the duo’s success is that this “machine” empowers them to analyze innumerable sources, from traffic cameras to GPS satellites to cellphone networks.

Moneyball (2011)

The film adaptation of Michael Lewis’ bestselling book chronicling the Oakland Athletics’ sabermetrics-driven rise, “Moneyball” is a prime example of how organizations can find the winning edge now, not years down the road. Hampered by a minuscule payroll and the loss of key players, the A’s pioneered an analytics-based model for player evaluation to gain a competitive advantage. While the A’s stumbled out of the gate in the 2012 season, this unique approach eventually paid off, as the team rattled off 20 consecutive wins and returned to the playoffs. Today, every major league front office employs a data-driven strategy to assemble their rosters.

Enemy of the State (1998)

With that in mind, it’s best to continually ask yourself, “How would customers feel about this potential use of data?” If the public might find something invasive or inappropriate, then consider taking a different approach. In “Enemy of the State,” a congressman holds firm against the passage of a surveillance bill that would be an onerous privacy overreach toward Americans. In many cases, the optics trump the data. Understanding your customers isn’t nearly as important as earning and maintaining their trust.

If we can decipher anything from Hollywood’s largely outlandish portrayals of this subject, it’s that the power of big-data analysis cannot be underestimated. It has the potential to turn your organization into an absolute powerhouse. By hiring great data scientists, staying focused and experimenting freely, all while maintaining strong data privacy controls and sensitivity to customer concerns, any business can harness big data successfully.


Prat Moghe, the founder and CEO of Cazena, is a big-data entrepreneur with nearly 20 years of experience inventing next-generation products and building strong teams in the technology sector. As SVP of strategy, products and marketing at Netezza, Moghe led a 400-person team that launched the latest-generation Netezza appliance; Netezza was acquired by IBM for $1.7 billion in 2010. Reach him @pratmoghe.

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