Making Data Easy with Training Wheels? The Nielsen Dust Up

July 31, 2012

In the Honk newsletter, I have been plugging away at some of the flights of fancy that surround big data, next generation analytics, and all things predictive. I am nervous about “training wheels” on complex mathematical processes. Like the fill-in-the-blanks functions in Excel, a person without a foundation in math can fiddle around until the software spits out a number which “looks good.” In one of my jobs, my boss was a master at “the flow.” The idea was that numbers can be shaped to support a particular point. I recall his comment to me in 1974, “Most of our clients are not smart enough to work through the math. We have to generate outputs which flow.” The idea is one that troubled me. I moved on to greener and less slippery pastures and I kept that notion of “flow” squarely in mind. Numbers should not cause the person looking at a chart or a table to say, “Wow, that number looks weird.” Hence, flow allows the reasoning process to be guided.

I just read a story which I hope is not accurate. I want to document my coming across the item, however. I think it will be an interesting touchstone and search and content processing companies race to be come players in big data and analytics. The story appeared in the Hollywood Reporter, a publication about which I know little. The headline caught my attention because it resonates with advertising and advertising automatically evokes the Google logo for me. “Nielsen Sued for Billions over Allegedly Manipulated TV Ratings” carries a hard hitting subtitle too: “In a huge new lawsuit, the business of TV ratings is fingered for rampant corruption by India’s largest TV news network.” I know even less about India than the Hollywood Reporter.

Fancy math underlies the products and services of many analytics firms which offer products and services to licensees that make interacting with data a matter of pointing and clicking. A happy quack for the equation to

Here’s the passage I noted:

In a 194-page lawsuit filed in New York court late last week, NDTV accuses Nielsen of violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act by manipulating viewership data in favor of channels that are willing to provide bribes to its officials. According to NDTV, rampant manipulation of viewership data has been going on for eight years, and when presented with evidence earlier this year, top executives at Nielsen pledged to make changes. But the Indian news giant says these promises have been false ones.

Like most litigation, the story will unfold slowly and perhaps not at all. The i2 Group Palantir litigation is a relatively recent example. Based on my experience with the boss who wanted numbers to flow, I can see how the possibility of tweaking could be useful to some companies. However, with the dismal state of math skills, how can I now of the problem was a result of human intent, human error, or a training wheels type system driven over rocky terrain. I can’t and I bet that most people thinking about this situation cannot either.

What is interesting to me, however, are these notions:

  1. How many other fancy math systems are open to similar allegations from their licensees?
  2. Will this type of legal action cause some of the vendors pitching fancy math and predictive systems to modify their marketing materials to include more caveats and real world anchors instead of bold assertions?
  3. How will the legal system deal with fancy math litigation? I don’t know many attorneys. The handful with which I have some experience have been quick to point out that math, engineering, and science were not their strengths. Logic and reasoning were their strong suits.

With many search and content processing companies embracing fancy math, sentiment analysis, smart indexing and other math-based functions, will a search vendor find itself in the hot seat? I hope not but the market wants to buy fancy math. Understanding the fancy math may drive demand for individuals who can figure out if the systems and methods do what the licensee believes they do.

Oh, I like the word “billions.” Big money adds to the drama of analytics risk management in my opinion.

Stephen E Arnold, July 31, 2012


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