Numbers Behind the News: Development Insights from Big Data

IBM estimates that we create 2.5 quintillion bytes of data every day.  They do not, however, estimate how much of this data is duplicated – all of the documents emailed between friends and coworkers that get stored on personal devices, corporate servers and cloud machines.  By my own unscientific and completely arbitrary estimate, at least 55 percent of our daily data production is duplication.

Big Data includes a lot of transactional data – what you purchase from stores as well as your Google searches or the fact that Person A sent an email to Person B,  as well as the content of that email.  There is also data from sensors used in industrial production as well as climate, weather and traffic monitoring.  It includes Twitter and other social media posts, digital photos, Wikipedia entries and data produced by researchers, scientists, corporations and government agencies.

Big Data is often unstructured but it is usually timely.   It is not simply an aggregation of a bunch of data.  The challenge is to structure this data and make sense of it.  Economists and regional developers have been behind in tapping into Big Data but it can be useful in a number of ways.  Much of it enables firms to better segment customers or develop next generation products.  It can also provide value in itself by selling access to that data for specific types of users and uses.

One of the problems we have with a lot of economic data is that it is too structured or aggregated to make it useful for data mining and other Big Data analytical techniques.  For instance, our use and definition of industry sectors (NAICS) hampers analysis of emerging industries.  This structure is used to provide anonymity and confidentiality but it also distorts the kind of variation that is useful to better understanding how our economy works.  For one, we have no idea what happens within a nondisclosed NAICS code.  But even within a sector we don’t know how many firms are growing or declining or the magnitude of those changes.  For most economic developers working within a local or regional economy, it can make a big difference whether an apparent “industry trend” is broadly shared by companies in the sector or if there are diverging patterns.

Currently there are few sources of Big Data for economic development analysis, but job postings, social media feeds and patent data are a few that Fourth Economy has been working on to yield new insights on economic trends.  Patent data has been particularly ripe for this analysis, in part because it is so unstructured that it is difficult to analyze with traditional tools and techniques.  These can be frustrating times for analysts and for anyone seeking answers.  There is a wealth of data out there, but too often we aren’t able to hammer it into useful information.

We’ve set up a quick poll to gather some data of our own. It’s only one question, so share your thoughts.

 

Pittsburgh: The Entrepreneurial City (Part 1)

The short answer? Entrepreneurs.  A recent study by the Kauffman Foundation found that the rate of business startups is very stable from year to year, varying between 3% to 6%.  Entrepreneurship is resilient to both economic booms and busts which is good news for policymakers interested in a sustainable growth strategy that doesn’t suffer from cyclical downturns.

What does this mean for Pittsburgh?  We have tremendous research enterprises – both in our universities and a growing base of innovative firms.  The City of Pittsburgh – led by Oakland – is the region’s seedbed of innovation, accounting for more than one-third of the patents, more than two-thirds of the SBIR awards in the region, and three-fourths of the venture investment.

But to rely on entrepreneurship to drive growth in the region, we have some work to do.  Pennsylvania competes for last place among states for new business creation. The Pittsburgh region ranks in the bottom fifth of the nation’s metropolitan areas on the same indicators.  We have produced some notable entrepreneurial successes, but on the whole, we are the tip of the tail of entrepreneurship.

Why?

It’s not taxes.  Massachusetts and California both had higher taxes than we did and still grew faster. A true entrepreneur is a change-maker driven to overcome obstacles.  They don’t look at the wall and say, “If it were two feet lower, I might try to climb it.’  Similarly, an entrepreneur with a disruptive business opportunity is not likely to be scared away by the tax rates.

In a study on why places have different levels of entrepreneurship,  Edward Glaeser and William Kerr found that the number of smaller suppliers and pool of qualified workers. within an industry can promote the creation of new firms in that industry. In response to the crisis of the 1980s, our mantra was diversification.  Our success in diversifying the economy has now hurt us in this area of creating enough depth for new industries to prosper.

IT as Bright Spot

One success in our region is the information technology sector.  It’s taken more than twenty years, but we have developed a talent pool of technical and management talent with varying experience levels. Three regional startups: Transarc, FORE Systems and Carnegie Group – have spawned a dozen startup firms that are seeding future generations of entrepreneurs.

For the first time since its start in 1983, Innovation Works has more good deals than they can fund.  We can now say that we are approaching a critical mass of second and third generation entrepreneurs and we may be only a few years from seeing that the tangible economic impact.

We have often explained our lagging entrepreneurship as a cultural residue of our industrial past, blaming the old steel mentality and being adverse to risk.  A 2002 study found that firms in the region were less likely to share information than in other regions.  But this may be fading, due to three trends:

  1. Regional entrepreneurs have progressed on the learning curve, creating not just 2nd and 3rd generation entrepreneurs but a whole new crop of innovators like Joshua Dziabiak of ShowClix – one of Inc.com’s top 30 under 30 Entrepreneurs.
  2. Mainstreaming of entrepreneurial achievement—think Microsoft, Apple, Google, Facebook and even the movie, The Social Network–has improved understanding of how we benefit from local startups like FORE Systems, Spinnaker and FreeMarkets even as they fade away.
  3. The return of Boomerang Entrepreneurs.  We lamented every time a firm was recruited away in the 1990s but we are seeing those entrepreneurs return, bringing with them the expertise and networks from other regions. One example: Nick Manolis who went to Boston with Internet Securities but has now returned as CEO of TrueCommerce, an Innovation Works portfolio company.

Moving forward, we must avoid the temptation to pick the “one approach that works best.”  The reality is, you have to do a lot of things well. One of the strengths of Pittsburgh is that we have not put all of our eggs in one basket. The failed efforts to consolidate economic development has left us with a dynamic and flexible eco-system akin to a cloud-sourcing network for entrepreneurial support.

The notion of a One Stop, One Size Fits All approach is not suited to the diverse needs of a vibrant entrepreneurial climate.  It takes some effort to navigate, but the resources in Pittsburgh allow an entrepreneur to select the services and programs that best fit their needs.

While there is no silver bullet to promoting growth or entrepreneurship, whichever path you choose you have to be able to do many things well to enjoy sustainable growth and prosperity.

 

 


This article originally appeared in PopCity on 11.03.10.