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Data Size Matters, But Smarts Matter More

Data Size Matters, But Smarts Matter More Welcome to the latest edition of the Storm King Analytics newsletter, a bi-weekly update on what we’re doing, reading, and listening. This time around, we debate Big Data versus “Smart Data” and how to find the most connected person in the room, even when you’re not sure who you’re looking for. Before LinkedIn cashed out to Microsoft this summer, CEO Jeff Weiner liked to describe the social network’s culmination as the “economic graph,” a platform encompassing every relationship between the 3.3 billion people employed in the planet’s formal workforce. It’s a classic case of the totalizing logic of Big Data — once we have everything, we’ll know everything — but if LinkedIn users know anything, it’s that the network’s signal-to-noise ratio has proven inversely proportional to its size. The problem with Big Data is that it is simultaneously too big and never big enough. Using LinkedIn to identify sales prospects illustrates another problem with even the biggest formal datasets — sometimes the person nominally in charge isn’t the one who decides the outcome. One of the foundational concepts in social network analysis is “brokerage” and the related notion of “structural holes.” The University of Chicago’s Ronald Burt was the first to demonstrate how the individuals who manage to bridge these gaps between cliques within organizations produce more ideas, make better decisions, and prosper accordingly — while also being largely invisible. As Burt once told Inc. magazine, a network like LinkedIn “doesn't answer the question of ‘why them?’ It assumes you know.” So, what do you do when you don’t know? This is the question we ask daily at Storm King Analytics, whether it’s in support of our colleagues at West Point’s Network Science Center or on behalf of clients trying to make better sense of opaque environments — who really drives decision-making and how do I influence them to achieve my goals? That’s not a question that can be answered with Big Data; you need something… smarter. Call it “Smart Data,” for lack of a better catchphrase. A case in point is our work on behalf of a California biotech firm seeking to make inroads in Morocco, which would appear to be fertile territory for companies invested in battling cancer. In recent years, the royal family, led by King Mohammed VI, has led an ambitious campaign to detect and combat cancer early in their subjects. The King’s wife, Royal Highness Princess Lalla Salma, created the Lalla Salma Foundation to marshal public and private partners for help with screening and prevention. But standing in the startup’s way were pharma giants such as Roche, which have operated in the country for more than 50 years. Outmaneuvering them to reach the royals would be difficult, to say the least. So, who was key?

King Mohammed VI of Morocco and his wife, Princess Lalla Salma

Our approach is to meld qualitative research and cultural expertise with quantitative analysis — half smarts and half data. In this case, we started by mapping the people and institutions commanding power and influence around this particular issue. Broadly speaking, we found four groups with outsized clout:

  1. The royal family and their senior advisors. The King of Morocco possesses vast executive powers and keeps counsel with a tight-knit circle of advisors.

  2. Société Nationale d'Investissement (SNI). A large private holding company controlled by the royal family. The group has a huge footprint, estimated to be worth 3% of Moroccan GDP.

  3. Collège Royale. A secondary school located within the royal palace in Rabat. It specializes in the education of princes and princesses. Selected children of other families may attend, and historically the classmates of royal family members command great status within Morocco.

  4. Authenticity and Modernity Party (Parti Authenticité et Modernité-PAM). A political party founded by Fouad Ali El Himma, advisor to King Mohammed VI and the former interior minister. From its founding, it has been a pro-monarchy party with the implicit backing of the King.

Starting with individuals belonging to these groups, we then added the names of influential members within Morocco’s medical and philanthropic establishment, including Lalla Salma Foundation members and prominent physicians. Populating our model with publicly available biographical details sourced from news outlets, financial databases, Wikipedia, and LinkedIn (why not?), we used these noisy-but-effective portraits to identify connections and create network quantifiably depicting the social capital invested in those relationships. The result looked like this:

Your eyes don’t deceive you. Our analysis confirms Moulay Tahar Alaoui is far and away the most connected person on this issue in the entire Moroccan establishment. Wait, who? Moulay Tahar Alaoui is a prominent doctor practicing at a prominent hospital, the Centre National de Sante Reproductrice — and a royal family insider. He’s not exactly an unknown commodity — he sits on the Lalla Slama Foundation Board and is a member of its Scientific Council — but he wields no decision-making powers of his own. He’s the bridge over the yawning structural hole between Morocco’s medical establishment and its royals. He’s your way in.

Moulay Tahar Alaoui Source:

Would LinkedIn’s data scientists have arrived at the same conclusion? (After all, we did borrow some of their data.) We don’t think so. Just as Ronald Burt builds his models of organizations through painstaking interviews with stakeholders, our smart data approach combines the qualitative insights of experts with the quantitative muscle of our proprietary to discover connectors like Alaoui hiding in plain sight.

More from Storm King Analytics:

  • We recently published a series of articles on the use of network analysis in understanding and shaping Ungoverned Spaces. if you missed them you can catch up here, here, and here.

  • What do college football coaches and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe have in common? Faced with an information vacuum, amateur Kremlinologists obsessively track their movements via private jet. We have our own theories of what will happen when “the old man goes,” as they say in Harare.

  • There’s been a bit of buzz about “The Diaspora” returning to countries in Africa. During a visit to Liberia several years ago, we were fortunate to meet with some of these returnees.

Other interesting tidbits:

  • Killing terrorist leaders doesn’t defeat terrorists. Surprised? You shouldn’t be. A rich body of research indicates that “node removal” (as they call it in social network theory) or “decapitation” (as they call it in the field) isn’t particularly effective in dismantling terrorist networks. Why? Because they’re networks. They adjust.

  • Berhanu Nega is a Bucknell University professor, a former political prisoner sentenced to death in absentia, and now the leader of a rebel militia in Eritrea seeking to overthrow the government of Ethiopia. A story of diaspora networks and how post-revolutionary coalitions go awry.

  • If you like old school soul, you need to check out the Birmingham, Alabama (and most unlikely looking) soul outfit called St. Paul and the Broken Bones.

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