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Locating "A Haystack Full of Needles"
November 20, 2012 - 8:20pm

A Haystack Full of Needles: Cutting Through the Clutter of the Online World to Find a Place, Partner or President (TED Books) by Jim Hornthal

Published in October of 2012.

61 pages, $2.99.

Orbitz and Expedia may have killed the travel agency business, but my family desperately needs a skilled trip advisor to plan our next vacation. (The number of travel agents has dropped from over 110,000 in 2001 to about 77,000 today).  

iTunesU (and Napster) destroyed Tower Records, but I have no idea how to get a better playlist for my morning run.

Amazon and Netflix put Borders and Blockbuster out of business (Blockbuster is limping along out of bankruptcy), but it is doubtful that our new way of finding books and movies is resulting in us reading and watching better books and movies. (Although Long Tail enthusiasts may disagree).

Jim Hornthal thinks that we are about to enter the second wave of consumer Internet platforms. The new platforms will be based less on community content (Facebook), or cloud applications (Gmail) - but on personalization via algorithms and massive data analysis.   

His canonical example is Pandora's Music Genome Project. Pandora breaks each song in its database into 450 discrete musical characteristics. The system then learns your musical tastes by how you rate different songs, and by building on ratings from all Pandora listeners (over 51 million), the site can predict which music (from a catalogue of almost 1 million songs) that you are likely to enjoy.

Hornthal foresees an online genome project for every type of content and service. He is the founding CEO of Triporati, a site that tries to match vacation deals with travel preferences. In A Haystack Full of Needles, Hornthal makes the case that the era of big data will improve how we select which neighborhood to live in, school to attend, and person to date.  

For every need there seems to be an Internet startup seeking to harness the power of Amazon's S3 database paired with sophisticated algorithms to help people make better choices.  Hornthal, a venture capitalist at CMEA Capital, seems to know everybody in the big data consumer web business. His experience as an entrepreneur, venture capitalist, and TEDster enables Hornthal to see the growth of data based web data driven decision aids as part of a larger transformation in consumer behavior.  

I would have liked if Honthal had tackled some of the more difficult questions about the age of big data in his slim TED volume.  Will the mega platforms of Amazon and Google simply swamp the smaller players, having access to so much consumer data and processing power?   Will the growth of algorithmically driven recommendation engines, ones that improve as more data is available to analyze, displace workers who currently provide these services?  Are investment advisors the next travel agents, accountants the next video store employees?  Will the advantages of big data stop at higher online ad revenues?

A Haystack Full of Needles has an all too brief section on education. One of the main arguments for why MOOCs will change how we teach is that we will be able to capture so much learner data.   I"m betting that sooner than later we will see a TED book on MOOCs.

Have you become a fan of TED books? I think that TED is brilliant to extend its brand to publishing in the form of concise nonfiction e-books. Other media outlets will surely follow.

What are you reading?



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