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Microsoft Opens Polling Prediction Lab

Microsoft Research today opened its new online Prediction Lab in a move it said aims to reinvent the way polls and surveys are conducted. The new lab, open to anyone in the format of a game, seeks to provide more accurate predictions than current surveys can forecast today.

Led by David Rothschild, an economist at Microsoft Research and also a fellow at the Applied Statistics Center at Columbia University, the Prediction Lab boasts it already has a credible track record prior to its launch. In some examples released today, the lab predicted an 84 percent chance that Scottish voters would reject the election held to decide whether Scotland should secede from the United Kingdom.

The predictions, published in a blog post called A Data-Driven Crystal Ball, also included data of  the winners of all 15 World Cup knockout games this year. And in the 2012 presidential election, the lab got the Obama versus Romney results right in 50 of 51 territories (including Washington, DC). The new interactive platform, released to the public, hopes to gather more data and sentiment of the general population.

"We're building an infrastructure that's incredibly scalable, so we can be answering questions along a massive continuum," Rothschild said in the blog post, where he described the Prediction Lab as "a great laboratory for researchers [and] a very socialized experience" for those who participate.

"By really reinventing survey research, we feel that we can open it up to a whole new realm of questions that, previously, people used to say you can only use a model for," Rothschild added. "From whom you survey to the questions you ask to the aggregation method that you utilize to the incentive structure, we see places to innovate. We're trying to be extremely disruptive."

Rothschild also explained why traditional poling technology is outdated and the need to research new methods like in the Prediction Lab in the era of big data.  "First, I firmly believe the standard polling will reach a point where the response rate and the coverage is so low that something bad will happen. Then, the standard polling technology will be completely destroyed, so it is prudent to invest in alternative methods. Second, even if nothing ever happened to standard polling, nonprobability polling data will unlock market intelligence for us that no standard polling could ever provide. Ultimately, we will be able to gather data so quickly that the idea of a decision-maker waiting a few weeks for a poll will seem crazy."

Microsoft is hoping to keep participants engaged with its game-like polling technique, where participants can win or lose points based on making an accurate prediction (if you're wrong, you lose points). This week's "challenge" looks to predict whether President Obama will name a new attorney general before Oct. 5. The second question asks if the number of U.S. states recognizing gay marriages will change next week and the final poll asks if there will be American active combat soldiers in Syria by Oct. 5.

Whether the Microsoft Prediction Lab will gain the status of more popular surveys such as the Gallup polls remains to be seen. But the work in Microsoft Research shows an interesting use of applied quantitative research. Though Microsoft didn't outline plans to extend the Prediction Lab, perhaps some of its technology will have implication for the company's offerings such as Cortana, Bing and even Delve, the new Office Graph technology formerly code-named "Oslo" for SharePoint and Office 365. Now in preview, it's built on Microsoft's FAST enterprise search technology and is designed to work across Office 365 app silos.


Posted by Jeffrey Schwartz on 09/29/2014 at 11:54 AM


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