Website Seeks to Make Government Data Easier to Sift Through

For years, the federal government, states and some cities have enthusiastically made vast troves of data open to the public. Acres of paper records on demographics, public health, traffic patterns, energy consumption, family incomes and many other topics have been digitized and posted on the web.

This abundance of data can be a gold mine for discovery and insights, but finding the nuggets can be arduous, requiring special skills.

A project coming out of the M.I.T. Media Lab on Monday seeks to ease that challenge and to make the value of government data available to a wider audience. The project, called Data USA, bills itself as “the most comprehensive visualization of U.S. public data.” It is free, and its software code is open source, meaning that developers can build custom applications by adding other data.

Steve Lohr, New York Times, April 4, 2016

Change the lights, redo the mirror: Hotels use fake rooms to test ideas

Probability in Marketing-

The purpose of this room, a 145-square-foot prototype in an unfinished office building in Alexandria, is to help hotel executives figure out exactly what they do — and don’t — want to replicate at the Pod Hotel when it opens in Chinatown next year.

The list of gripes is already three pages long: The floors are too light. The desk chair too bulky. Just about every light fixture takes up too much space.

“We built a room and thought we were done,” said Aaron Katz, president and chief executive of District-based Modus Hotels, which is building the 245-room property. “But now we are rethinking nearly every part of it. Where everybody else sees a handle on a door, we see potential for a pocket to catch.”

Abha Bhattarai, Washington Post, November 29, 2015


The weird ways the weather makes you buy things you didn’t plan to

Probability in Marketing –

These days, many businesses are tracking minute changes in the weather as a way to figure out what customers want — from hair products and quilting supplies to McRibs and insurance – often before they even know they want them.

In early November, McDonald’s announced that it would begin using digital menu boards that will change offerings based on the local weather and the time of day. When it’s hot outside, expect to see McFlurries; when it’s cold, heartier meals and hot beverages.

Forecasts can also help supermarkets know what to stock.

Ana Swanson, Washington Post, November 25, 2015

Expensive running shoes are no better, and often worse, than cheaper ones

Probability in Marketing, Health, Technology, Sports –

[I]f you want the closest thing to an objective look at quality and cost, a Danish Web site called has crunched the numbers from nearly 135,000 consumer reviews it gathered over a year, along with the suggested retail price of most of the popular brands.

The biggest surprise: The higher the price, the lower the rating in many cases. In fact, the 10 most expensive running shoes, with an average list price of $181 per pair, were rated 8.1 percent lower than the 10 cheapest models (average price $61).

Lenny Bernstein, Washington Post, November 19, 2015

Cats used as bait to lure tourists back to Brussels

Probability in Crime, Safety, Economics –

After a five-day lockdown prompted by the maximum security alert, Brussels officials are attempting to entice back tourists who may have been scared away by images of soldiers armed with machine guns in the capital’s deserted streets. Their secret weapon? Cats.

Cats became an unofficial mascot of the Brussels lockdown when residents flooded social media with hundreds of kitty pictures this week, after a plea from police not to share information about ongoing raids. Instead of posting updates on where police operations were happening, users tweeted images of cats, including with their paws up, disguised as police snipers and even wearing a bowler hat, the trademark of Rene Magritte, Belgium’s greatest surrealist painter.

Maria Cheng, Washington Post, November 28, 2015

How your junk mail shows if you’re rich or poor

Probability in Economics, Marketing –

If you want to know what credit card companies think of you, look at your mail.

Are you “pre-screened” for lots of mileage-reward cards? Banks think you’re rich and educated.

Do you mostly see offers for low-APR teaser rates? Banks think you’re poor and uneducated — and, perhaps, vulnerable to financial traps.

To get ahead in a highly competitive industry, credit card companies have become increasingly sophisticated — and specific — about soliciting new customers. They have also learned to be savvy about wringing profits from their cardholders, even if that means taking advantage of people’s behavioral weaknesses.

Jeff Guo, Washington Post, October 19, 2015

Coke funds health group that shifts blame away from soda

Probability in Marketing –

Coke is funding a health research organization that shifts blame away from sugary soda drinks as a cause of obesity.

Coca-Cola (CCE) donated $1.5 million last year to start a nonprofit research organization that questions the role soda and fast food play in weight gain, according to the New York Times.

The Global Energy Balance Network pushes the idea that Americans are too focused on what they eat, and not focused enough on exercise. The organization’s web site is registered to the Coca Cola headquarters in Atlanta, according to the Times.

Aaron Smith, CNN Money, August 10, 2015

The Container Store and the challenge of building a business for neatniks

Probability in Business, Marketing –

But recent weakness in sales and sluggish traffic to its stores suggests a hard truth: It’s not easy to build a business on getting America organized. Now, it seems the company sees drawing in more big spenders as their best shot at getting a sales jolt.

The company has said its average customer visits the store only 2.5 times a year, and even its best customers visit about four times a year. While the Container Store declined to disclose its traffic numbers for this quarter, executives have said in recent quarters that a drop-off in store traffic was the culprit for slower sales.

So where does the Container Store go from here?  The company says it is thinking of 2015 as an “investment year,” and one of its major efforts is the introduction of a luxury product called TCS Closets that is designed to appeal to a more affluent shopper.

Sarah Halzack, Washington Post, July 8, 2015

Why Aren’t You Personalizing Your Email Marketing?

Probability in Marketing, Psychology –

A study by Caslon & Co. showed that personalized marketing can generate around three times as many orders and leads. Fine, but how do you do it?
Well, there is the Big Data theory. Build up a massive data profile on each customer and use sophisticated analytics and study one customer at a time to determine what each one wants, or study one product at a time to size up the best potential buyers based on the profile of previous buyers. This can work, but it is expensive and includes data integration, modeling, etc. It does not scale well to analyze one customer or product at a time.

Then, there’s the “Little Data” approach: Get the most value you can from the least amount of data. It turns out you can accurately predict what each customer is most likely to buy next by analyzing just a few fields of past transaction history across the customer base.

Peter Moloney,, July 28, 2015