Ever pondered which Stevie Wonder album is the best? Do you want to know about the top TV shows to binge-watch or the most important goals in life? Wonder what people regret most about their weddings?
As the chief data scientist for Los Angeles startup Ranker.com, Ravi Iyer MA ’10 PhD ’11 uses his doctorate in psychology to find empirical answers to these questions and many others — some serious, some esoteric and some lighthearted — to which we may, openly or secretly, long to know the answers.
A consumer Internet platform that collects millions of monthly consumer opinions, Ranker is the world’s largest crowdsourcing site.
“So what Yelp does for restaurants and Trip Advisor does for hotels,” Iyer said, “we do for the rest of the world’s questions that could use a crowdsourced answer. For marketing purposes we can then cross-track all these opinions, so we can say people who have these life goals enjoy these TV shows and these snack foods and beers.”
Finding wisdom in the crowd
Part of his job is to make sure lists are accurate representations of crowd wisdom and to mine Ranker’s dataset for relationships.
It’s all about studying the opinions and behavior of people while they’re online.
“A lot of the work I do is very relevant to what I studied in psychology,” Iyer said. “It’s all about studying the opinions and behavior of people while they’re online and factor analyzing that into personality traits.”
Factor analysis is a statistical method for understanding the relationships among many related but complex variables.
When studying online behavior and opinions, a lot of the biases that emerge are reflective of psychological variables, Iyer said.
“We are studying data that is generated by people, so understanding people is essential to understanding the data.”
Citing the example of how Ranker’s World Cup voters beat top statistician Nate Silver in predicting the outcome of the World Cup, Iyer said he was initially surprised by the utility of the wisdom of crowds.
“Nate Silver used statistics about player performance, but human beings are much better at taking in data, aggregating it and spitting out a reasonable answer,” he said. “Computers can be too literal.”
Crowdsourcing is the aggregation of people’s opinions. “The idea,” Iyer said, “is that the aggregated opinion of a large group of people who are less expert is actually better than any given expert. Research shows this is mathematically true.”
Building on education, life experience
An Ohio native whose parents came to the United States from India and the Philippines to get their doctorats at Ohio State University, Iyer elected to attend Columbia University for his undergraduate degree. He graduated in 1996 at the height of the dot.com bubble with a bachelor’s in political science and a minor in computer science.
After working in Germany, living in the Philippines for a while and teaching English in Korea, he decided he wanted to put down roots. He moved to Los Angeles and began pursuing a doctorate in psychology at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.
“At the time I didn’t really know how to think about data,” Iyer said. “Psychology is a great way to learn how to understand data and especially data generated by people.”
While there, he co-founded YourMorals.org, an educational website that focuses on moral psychology, along with USC Dornsife Assistant Professor Jesse Graham, who was then a graduate student at the University of Virginia.
“We have tens of thousands of people coming to our site and answering questions about moral psychology in order to learn about themselves,” Iyer said. “The innovation is that we give them the chance to compare themselves to others.”
He is also executive director of Civil Politics, a nonprofit that uses technology to bridge the divide between practitioners and researchers in moral psychology and a data science consultant for Zenzi Communications, which specializes in values-based marketing.
“Having that understanding of the specific way that data can be used to measure people’s values is particularly useful in the tech world where the best companies are trying to solve the challenge of giving people more meaningful experiences, as opposed to just giving people more stuff.”