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The Moneyball Effect: How smart data is transforming criminal justice, healthcare, music, and even government spending

Posted by: Kate Torgovnick May
Anne Milgram reveals what happened when New Jersey  moneyballed its criminal justice system. Photo: Marla Aufmuth

Anne Milgram reveals what happened when New Jersey moneyballed its criminal justice system. Photo: Marla Aufmuth

When Anne Milgram became the Attorney General of New Jersey in 2007, she was stunned to find out just how little data was available on who was being arrested, who was being charged, who was serving time in jails and prisons, and who was being released.

Anne Milgram: Why smart statistics are the key to fighting crimeAnne Milgram: Why smart statistics are the key to fighting crime“It turns out that most big criminal justice agencies like my own didn’t track the things that matter,” she says in today’s talk, filmed at TED@BCG. “We didn’t share data, or use analytics, to make better decisions and reduce crime.”

Milgram’s idea for how to change this: “I wanted to moneyball criminal justice.”

Moneyball, of course, is the name of a 2011 movie starring Brad Pitt and the book it’s based on, written by Michael Lewis in 2003. The term refers to a practice adopted by the Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane and assistant general manager Paul DePodesta in 2002 — the organization began basing decisions not on star power or scouts’ instincts, but on statistical analysis of measurable factors like on-base and slugging percentages. This worked exceptionally well for the A’s. On a tiny budget, Oakland made it to the playoffs in 2002 and 2003, and — since then — nine other major league teams have hired Sabermetrics analysts to crunch these types of numbers.

Milgram is working hard to bring smart statistics to criminal justice. To hear the results she’s seen so far, watch this talk. And below, take a look at a few surprising sectors that are getting the moneyball treatment as well.

Moneyballing music. Last year, Forbes magazine profiled the firm Next Big Sound, a company using statistical analysis to predict how musicians will perform in the market. The idea is that — rather than relying on the instincts of A&R reps — past performance on Pandora, Spotify, Facebook, etc can be used to predict future potential. The article reads, “For example, the company has found that musicians who gain 20,000 to 50,000 Facebook fans in one month are four times more likely to eventually reach 1 million. With data like that, Next Big Sound promises to predict album sales within 20% accuracy for 85% of artists, giving labels a clearer idea of return on investment.”

Moneyballing human resources. In November, The Atlantic took a look at the practice of “people analytics” and how it’s affecting employers. (Billy Beane had something to do with this idea — in 2012, he gave a presentation at the TLNT Transform Conference called “The Moneyball Approach to Talent Management.”) The article describes how Bloomberg reportedly logs its employees’ keystrokes and the casino, Harrah’s, tracks employee smiles. It also describes where this trend could be going — for example, how a video game called Wasabi Waiter could be used by employers to judge potential employees’ ability to take action, solve problems and follow through on projects. The article looks at the ways these types of practices are disconcerting, but also how they could level an inherently unequal playing field. After all, the article points out that gender, race, age and even height biases have been demonstrated again and again in our current hiring landscape.

Moneyballing healthcare. Many have wondered: what about a moneyball approach to medicine? (See this call out via Common Health, this piece in Wharton Magazine or this op-ed on The Huffington Post from the President of the New York State Health Foundation.) In his TED Talk, “What doctors can learn from each other,” Stefan Larsson proposed an idea that feels like something of an answer to this question. In the talk, Larsson gives a taste of what can happen when doctors and hospitals measure their outcomes and share this data with each other: they are able to see which techniques are proving the most effective for patients and make adjustments. (Watch the talk for a simple way surgeons can make hip surgery more effective.) He imagines a continuous learning process for doctors — that could transform the healthcare industry to give better outcomes while also reducing cost.

Moneyballing government. This summer, John Bridgeland (the director of the White House Domestic Policy Council under President George W. Bush) and Peter Orszag (the director of the Office of Management and Budget in Barack Obama’s first term) teamed up to pen a provocative piece for The Atlantic called, “Can government play moneyball?” In it, the two write, “Based on our rough calculations, less than $1 out of every $100 of government spending is backed by even the most basic evidence that the money is being spent wisely.” The two explain how, for example, there are 339 federally-funded programs for at-risk youth, the grand majority of which haven’t been evaluated for effectiveness. And while many of these programs might show great results, some that have been evaluated show troubling results. (For example, Scared Straight has been shown to increase criminal behavior.) Yet, some of these ineffective programs continue because a powerful politician champions them. While Bridgeland and Orszag show why Washington is so averse to making data-based appropriation decisions, the two also see the ship beginning to turn around. They applaud the Obama administration for a 2014 budget with an “unprecendented focus on evidence and results.” The pair also gave a nod to the nonprofit Results for America, which advocates that for every $99 spent on a program, $1 be spent on evaluating it. The pair even suggest a “Moneyball Index” to encourage politicians not to support programs that don’t show results.

In any industry, figuring out what to measure, how to measure it and how to apply the information gleaned from those measurements is a challenge. Which of the applications of statistical analysis has you the most excited? And which has you the most terrified?

Comments (14)

  • Pingback: The Moneyball Effect: How Could Data Improve Governance? « Aktivni građani protiv korupcije

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  • Janus Kannuberg commented on Feb 4 2014

    Measuring changes what’s observed. If employees know their number of keystrokes will be measured they’ll increase quantity not quality. Counting smiles encourages lots of fake smiles which could end up hurting business. I guess to get representative data it would have to be anonymous.

  • ALBERT more commented on Feb 1 2014

    On education is much to be cut, but if it is committed to human coexistence educacon, the improvement of human life and not to serve Mat lab, everything is made by the noble and free future humanity should be welcomed, but not when it results in manipulation, in deafening humans, never will welcome an education than to make man be good for others

  • commented on Jan 29 2014

    Reblogged this on the monkey mind deliberation.

  • commented on Jan 28 2014

    Reblogged this on Data Science Guru.

  • Pingback: Justice System in America – Anne Milgram | Wizvoz's Blog

  • commented on Jan 28 2014

    Using data for decision-making for education and social programs both excites and terrifies me. Part of collecting “good” data is asking the right question and putting things in context. Context requires judgement and then we circle right back to champions and critics steering the bus rather than good information. For example, there is lots of data coming out from the education, brain development & economic fields about the evidence that providing early learning opportunities for children can make a huge difference in brain development and educational and social outcomes. However, we see mixed data coming out of Head Starts. But let’s put this in context – most Head Start teachers are being paid poverty level wages, transportation has been eliminated in many places which impacts attendance (dose) and if after HS students are placed into inferior schools, how can we expect pre-K learning to have a protective factor against the next 12 years of school? So we could falsely conclude that HS programs should be closed because they are not being effective enough when instead perhaps we should be looking at the data that tells us what needs to be in place for high quality early learning and use that as a guide to build better programs.

    • Michiel van der Blonk commented on Jan 30 2014

      Very insightful. We can only wish analysts see the ‘reality’ that hides in data. Luckily in sports there already is an ideal metric: the winner is on top.

      In education this is unclear: what constitutes ‘winning’ in education? Is it the best grades on a standardized test? What about the work place? What are you learning for? Being a good citizen? An obedient and productive employee? A critical thinker? A scientist? An independent person? A happy individual? A good group member? This depends on the community values, and how can we define those as a nation, as a world?

      What constitutes progress as a society? More consumption? An easy life? Less poverty? More gadgets? (Seemingly) happy people? Productivity in the workplace? Being first in the rat race? Fighting terrorism and war?

      • commented on Jan 30 2014

        You pose some very good questions. I for one see a happiness index as having as much validity as a measure of how a society is doing as GDP. For all the material things we produce we don’t seem to be making much progress on well-being. I think the economy should serve it’s people rather than people serving the economy.

  • commented on Jan 28 2014

    Reblogged this on Refactoring Fox and commented:
    Getting data to tell a story can lead to some pretty amazing things.

  • ALBERT more commented on Jan 28 2014

    Se que el pueblo norteamericano hace mucho para si, pero pregunto en su sistema penal juzgar a personas de otros países con su propia y amañada ley es justo? EE.UU comete delitos de lesa Humanidad en otros países y quien puede juzgarlo??? a que queda resumida su democracia, si es para unos y no para todos la misma ley.

  • commented on Jan 28 2014

    Reblogged this on Two Wheeled Life.