Hoping to revolutionize the way opinion polling is conducted, Microsoft announced the launch of Microsoft Prediction Lab on Tuesday. The interactive platform aims to provide more accurate predictions on everything from political outcomes to sporting events. The effort is being led by David Rothschild, a Microsoft researcher and fellow at Columbia University's Applied Statistics Center.
The Redmond, Washington-based company's goal is to use the platform to help improve the predictive algorithms used by services such as its digital assistant, Cortana, or its search engine, Bing.
Xbox Users Predict Election
The Prediction Lab site allows users to post their opinions on the outcomes of a variety of events. Currently, it is soliciting predictions for the 2014 U.S. midterm elections, social issues, foreign affairs, and developments in science and technology. Visitors to the site are encouraged to invite their friends to contests to see who can make the most accurate predictions and to follow their predictions as event unfold. The most successful predictors will be publicly recognized on the site.
Microsoft's methodology has already proven successful at predicting a variety of outcomes. Earlier this month, Rothschild predicted that Scottish voters were overwhelmingly likely to choose to remain part of the UK. Rothschild also predicted the outcome of the 2012 U.S. presidential vote in 50 out of 51 jurisdictions, and the winners of all 15 of the World Cup's knockout games this summer.
Microsoft's interest in predictive analysis goes back to a 2012 survey it conducted on players of the Xbox gaming console. That survey led Microsoft to develop analytical techniques that can make generalized predictions even in cases where the polling data comes from a population that is demographically skewed from the larger population.
"Standard polling looks at a respondent as, for example, a male from New York," Rothschild said. "The way we look we look at it is: a male and a person from New York. I hope to find other potential polltakers who are male and other potential polltakers who are from New York. And from that, by breaking people into their demographics, we're able to allow all users to inform the likely polling of all other users."
Online Lab or Marketer's Dream?
Microsoft said it sees the new platform as an online laboratory for researchers. Users will be able to customize views on the site based on their geographic location and their interests, with the goal of collecting data quickly and updating it as often as possible. According to the company, the availability of such data will help businesses make strategic investment decisions, such as where to locate a data center or how to invest marketing resources to attain optimal yield.
But the platform could also help Microsoft build a database of user profiles as deep as Facebook's. The platform asks users to provide information that could be used to identify them in the future, such as their name and e-mail address. Users are also asked to answer a number of personal questions, including their views on abortion and the length of their work commute.
That kind of data could prove a gold mine to Microsoft if it should ever decide to sell it to advertisers or develop its own ad network in the future. Facebook recently announced plans to use its own user database to support Atlas, an ad-serving platform it originally acquired from Microsoft.