Predicting the Unpredictable


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We now know black swans exist, but Europeans once believed that spying one of their kind would be like stumbling across a unicorn in the woods—impossible. Then, Willem de Vlamingh spotted black swans in Australia, and this black bird, which once represented the impossible to Europeans, shifted to represent the unpredictable. One company now dons the name "Black Swan." Find out how it aims to predict what we currently consider to be unpredictable. Transcript Ginette: “Submerse yourself in early 1600s London culture for a minute. Shakespeare’s alive and in his late career. The first permanent English settlement in the Americas just happened. Oxygen hasn’t been discovered yet. But a lesser known cultural idiosyncrasy has to do with a large white bird, the swan. In Europe, the only swans anyone had seen or heard about were white, so of course, in their minds, a swan couldn’t be any other color. From this concept, a popular saying develops, originally stemming from a poem. You use it when you want to make a point that something either doesn't exist or couldn’t happen. You’d say something like this: ‘you’re not going to find out because it’s about as likely as seeing a black swan,’ meaning that, that thing or event was impossible. “But then a discovery blows everyone’s minds. Dutch explorer Willem de Vlamingh is sent on a highly important rescue mission. A lost ship with 325 people on it probably ran aground near Australia, and they needed him to go rescue these people and the goods on board. While Willem and the three ships under his command go and search Australia for this lost ship, they find lots of fish; unique trees; quokka, a cat-sized kangaroo-like creature; and . . . black swans. This last discovery inevitably permanently shifts the meaning of this saying. After this, people start using it more to say when something’s highly unlikely or an unpredictable moment. “Now this concept of an unpredictable moment is why Steve King named his company Black Swan, because they predict the seemingly unpredictable.” Ginette: “I’m Ginette.” Curtis: “And I’m Curtis.” Ginette: “And you are listening to Data Crunch.” Curtis: “A podcast about how data and prediction shape our world.” Ginette: “A Vault Analytics production.” Steve King: “I am Steve King; I’m the CEO of Black Swan. Black Swan is 250 people who focus on trying to predict consumer behavior using data science, artificial intelligence, and big data. We have lots of large clients. We mostly work with big companies that have big problems to solve. Our work sort of splits across the US and the UK. Black Swan is absolutely full of stories. A lot of the work we really do is finding a hard problem that no one’s really solved before and then using data science to crack it, but there always quite interesting stories because, you know, they’re stories of a little bit of adventure, luck, and skill.’” Ginette: “The UK’s Sunday Times has consistently placed Black Swan on its lists: in 2014, it was on the ‘Ones to Watch’ list in its Tech Track. In 2015, it was ranked number one on the Start-Up Track. And in 2016, it was ranked number one in the Export Track 100, because it had the fastest growing international sales for the UK’s small to medium enterprises. “So what’s the secret sauce to the rapid growth and success of Black Swan, a company that solves problems for large companies in many different industries? It turns out, they aim to be better than anyone else at accessing and crunching a specific datasource.” Steve: “The reason we’re quite broad is it actually sits on one simple idea, and the simple idea really is that the Internet is really the world’s biggest data source, and we call, we call the Internet the world’s biggest focus group. So pretty much every opinion of a consumer or the open data that governments are laying out is all there for you to consume, but the, the trick is can you consume it in a way to help you find patterns so you can ...

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