Meet the Numbers Nerd Bringing Big Data to the Small Screen

'The Numbers Game' Concludes Monday, Returns Next Year

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Big Data has a TV show... or about as close to one as it's likely to get soon. National Geographic Channel's "The Numbers Game" is dissecting how people can user data to live healthier, happier and more successful lives.

Jake Porway hosts 'The Numbers Game' on National Geographic Channel
Jake Porway hosts 'The Numbers Game' on National Geographic Channel Credit: Christian Navarette

National Geographic isn't quite getting into jargon like real-time modeling, Hadoop and predictive analysis. But it is making data accessible to basic cable audiences as "Numbers Game" host Jake Porway, a data scientist and self-proclaimed numbers nerd, provides insights like the number of times men should have sex every year in order to increase their chances of living by 50%.

The first two episodes of "The Numbers Game" averaged 800,000 total viewers and 423,000 viewers 25 to 54 years old, according to National Geographic, 47% more 25-to-54-year-olds than the network has recently averaged in prime-time. The series concludes its initial three-episode run on Monday but returns for a 12-episode second season early next year.

Outside the series, Mr. Porway is using Big Data for the greater good. After working at The New York Times Company Research and Development Lab, which builds prototypes capitalizing on of trends in media and technology, he started DataKind, a non-profit that connects data scientists with other non-profits and social organizations

Mr. Porway talked with Ad Age about the state of Big Data, the challenges rising up and how all industries can use numbers to their advantage.

Advertising Age: Why did you decide to do "The Numbers Game?"

Jake Porway: The show looks to shine light and give a practical approach to how people can adopt data. We wanted to do a show for people who don't have jobs in data or tech. We make data fun and accessible. There's a lot of things you can learn from all the numbers out there, but it's not just about knowing what the numbers say, but providing a solution to the problems the data reveals. And that's what we do.

Ad Age: What are the challenges that arise with all this data? What do you make of all the buzz around Big Data?

Mr. Porway: People are lost in numbers these days. They are bogged down and don't know what it all means. We are going through a fundamental shift. Everything we do now has an interaction with a computer or smartphone so we have access to data we never had before. It used to be top down, where companies would go out and conduct a survey and collect data. Now we are walking around with devices that log everything we like, picture we take, store we visit. You don't have to go out and find data, now it is coming to us.

Social media has been a great new channel to show how customers are digesting content. You can see where viewers are coming from, how content travels through social media and predict responses. It is one of the best avenues to understand the consumer and provide a new channel of interaction.

People think data is the answer, but the data itself doesn't say anything. The data allows companies to ask big questions -- but if you don't know what questions you are asking or problem you need to solve, the data can't help. Big data presents a great opportunity to learn what a customer is doing, but it comes down to what you are trying to do at the company and the problem you are trying to solve. You need someone who knows how to use the data to plan strategies.

Ad Age: What are you most excited about?

Mr. Porway: The biggest excitement is everyone has access, not just scientists, or researchers or Silicon Valley. The explosion in data will make the entire world more efficient. There is a fundamental shift in humanity taking place. Government and third-parties opening up their data, which means organizations doing things in health and poverty can have access and use the data for good.

Ad Age: How can media companies and advertisers use this data?

Mr. Porway: Data can allow you to see hidden patterns. Netflix is a great example of how companies are using data. I liken the availability of data to when maps were first created. A map doesn't show you how to actually get anywhere, but it de-risks the adventure. In the same way, we are going through a data revolution.

If you wanted to come up with programming for Netflix, there would be lots of risk, testing, trial and error and plenty of flops. Now the data, like a map, gives guidance to what already works. If Kevin Spacey movies are highly watched, there's a better chance a show starring him will succeed. That's how companies can use the data, by seeing trends in the consumer and figuring out what those trends say about their business.

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