Quantifying Happiness

Fortune recently named Google the best company to work for — yet again. Not only have they revolutionized our on- and offline lives, but Google now hopes to transform the way we work. Their data-driven culture has seemingly found a way to quantify employee happiness.

But what have they really learned?

It doesn’t take much data crunching to realize that providing gourmet meals, onsite dry-cleaning and exorbitant bonuses will increase happiness and productivity. Ditto for generous leave time and flexible schedules. Now Google wants to use their data to answer fundamental questions about worker productivity such as, “Are leaders born or made? Are teams better than individuals at getting things done? Can individuals sustain high performance over their lifetimes?”

These are fascinating questions. And I have no doubt the geniuses at Google have the wherewithal to answer them one day. But I don’t need copious amounts of data to know what makes a healthy workplace environment. As one of millions of people who spend the majority of their days, nay, lifetimes, at work, it boils down to a few simple things: trust, feedback, respect.

My company may not be as big as Google (yet), but the leadership is committed to creating a work environment where those values are stressed. It’s amazing how far something as simple as mutual respect will get you. Or trusting your employees and providing them with constructive feedback.

So while I admire Google’s efforts to quantify workplace happiness, I know that it’s still the small things that matter to most people.

A Brave New World

I love all types of science fiction. From fantasy sci-fi to hardcore sci-fi, from Dr. Who to Children of Men, the best science fiction tells us something about who we are and where we hope to be. When I first read about prominent futurist Ray Kurzweil, he seemed like a quack straight from a cheesy sci-fi movie. Among other things, Kurzweil has predicted the integration of nanotechnology with humans, leading to our eventual immortality.

This seems crazy until you consider the number of events Kurzweil has correctly predicted, and that Google has hired him as their new Director of Engineering. In this role, he is working on a new search engine that uses artificial intelligence to answer questions before you ask them. According to Google Chairman Eric Schmidt:

This friend of yours, this cybernetic friend, that knows that you have certain questions about certain health issues or business strategies. And, it can then be canvassing all the new information that comes out in the world every minute and then bring things to your attention without you asking about them.”

Depending on your bent, this is either very exciting or very frightening. But the line “bring things to your attention without you asking . . . ” did make me think of the many ways we already rely on this type of technology.

The Zarca platform has characteristics of a “cybernetic friend” as it is smart and intuitive enough to prevent you from making survey design mistakes, protecting the integrity of your data.

The platform intelligently prevents ballot-box stuffing, uses data validation to prevent GIGO and utilizes true anonymity to encourage participants to provide better feedback.

While not the cybernetic best friend of Kurzweil’s musings, the platform is more like a parent who won’t let you enter text into a numerical allocation box, or stops some troll from skewing your results by taking the survey 50 times.

I’m not sure what the world will look like 20 years from now, but with quantum computers, self-driving cars, virtual reality glasses and survey platforms that “care” about the integrity of your results, we’re headed toward a brave new world indeed.

The Master of All I Survey

Regardless of your ideology or political leanings, November 6, 2012, was a triumph. As the longest election campaign in America history wound down, a growing number of professional pundits were trying to undermine the polling data and the statistical analysis based on that data. This hostility was not based on any rational counterargument; rather, they took an ostrich-like approach to facts they didn’t like. Oddly, this anger and frustration coalesced around one brainy statistician, Nate Silver. And, despite their best efforts to discredit the polling process and Silver’s methodology, the polls were right the entire time.

Silver developed a model that aggregates and analyzes the results of state polling data and assigns them weight based on their historical accuracy. Based on this model, Silver was able to predict 49 out of 50 states in the 2008 election, 36 out of 37 governorships in 2010 and was within the confidence interval for the 2010 House races. When his model forecast a 2012 victory for Obama, Silver’s methodology came under intense scrutiny and attack.

While Silver’s formula is far too complex for me to wrap my head around, he insists that his predictions are only as accurate as the polling and survey data he receives. If the polling data would have been inaccurate, then the public trust in polling and statistical analysis would have been undermined. As it stands, a well-crafted survey with solid participation rates can still yield accurate, actionable results.

All is well with the world.

I have never doubted the efficacy of survey data and statistical analysis. However, I have a better understanding of the concept of GIGO — Garbage In, Garbage Out. Your survey data is only as good as the survey itself. The survey itself is only beneficial if it reaches your intended audience and convinces them to complete and submit it. Creating a well-designed, engaging poll or survey, while minimizing error, is fundamental to describing, understanding and predicting human behavior.

Not only did Nate Silver correctly predict the outcome of the 2012 presidential race, but he was also alarmingly accurate. While Silver is not the only statistician to utilize a highly accurate model, his emergence onto the pop cultural landscape should be celebrated.

Public confidence in a number of institutions is eroding. So, even if you don’t fully understand his formula or methodology, Silver’s reliance on accurate polling and survey data is reassuring.