Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Who is Nate Silver & Why is He Leaving the NY Times for ESPN

Prepare for a new line of sleek, stylish calculators coming out. Data crunching and statistical analysis just got cool.

For a certain group of political and data junkies, Twitter and the blogosphere was buzzing this week with news that statistician, blogger, and presidential polls savant Nate Silver was leaving the New York Times for a new, lucrative contract with ESPN. Wait a minute ... what? A presidential polls statistician inked a deal with ESPN? What gives? Who is Nate Silver?

Nate Silver - a statistician, sabermetrician, sephelogist, social critic, and blogger - gained national prominence for election predictions in 2008 after he accurately called the election results in 49 of 50 states. He also correctly predicted all thirty five Senate races. By collating and extrapolating on hundreds of polls - and using a system he developed to predict baseball performance - Silver out performed nearly every poll, pundit, and news source working the election. At that time he was writing on a blog called FiveThirtyEight.com that he founded after becoming frustrated listening to poll watchers randomly predict results with very little data behind their decisions. Following that successful run, Nate Silver signed a deal to move his blog to the New York Times - a move which proved extremely lucrative for the paper in the 2012 race with as many as one in five NYTimes.com visitors coming to the sight exclusively for Silver's predictions. At the same time, Silver had published an inspired and insightful tome on predictions and data analysis called The Signal and the Noise. Sales for the book went up 400% the day after the election.

Like any successful person who challenges the conventional wisdom, Silver has been the source of a couple well publicized feuds with people like MSNBC's Joe Scarborough and, more notably, Politico.com  Many saw Politico's criticism of Nate Silver as sour grapes for a website that was basically schooled by Silver on predicting presidential politics. Of course, none of the criticism of Silver by any who disagree with him has done anything to diminish the rise of the young mathematician. In this day and age, with a population obsessed with data and information, and companies forever seeking an edge with their knowledge and manipulation of Big Data, Nate Silver is a verifiable data rock star. Silver has made data and statistics cool, and that will only continue with his new deal to move FiveThirtyEight to ESPN.

So, how does a mathematician end up with a contract at ESPN? Important to remember is that his earliest data work - and success - was in developing his sports performance system. Anyone who has read, seen, or heard of Michael Lewis' insightful explanation of Moneyball and the use of sabermetrics in sports knows that sports and numbers are intimately engaged. The marriage of sports and stats grew exponentially with the rise of fantasy sports - and we all know someone who is obsessed with how his fantasy football/basketball/baseball team is doing. And from Silver's perspective, there is so much more he can do than just predict elections or sports performance. The plans for his new site at ESPN is for the system to expand into weather and entertainment - even predicting Oscar winners based on polling data. Certainly, he may be biting off more than he can chew with something as arbitrary as Academy Awards, but Silver has definitely got the clout at this point to try.

For all the young data geeks out there, Nate Silver has a great lesson on the politics of math and developing a brand.

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