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East Liberty company builds high-tech data wizard that assists research, marketing

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Friday, July 5, 2013, 11:45 p.m.
 

East Liberty's CivicScience Inc. collects millions of responses to online poll questions on hundreds of websites each week.

That's a tremendous amount of data that can yield valuable information about consumers for CivicScience's clients. But analyzing those data can be cumbersome and time-consuming, and it can be affected by the limits of human understanding, CEO John Dick said.

So CivicScience built a “machine-learning” system that quickly and automatically seeks out the strongest relationships in the data, which is used by companies to create targeted marketing for their products, Dick said.

“It makes no judgment about what matters,” he said of the system, called Cascabel. “It's not constrained by a conventional (human) hypothesis.”

Cascabel, which Dick said has been “flying off the shelves” since its introduction about a month ago, was used by wireless carrier T-Mobile recently to find the common traits among the customers of rival AT&T who might consider switching carriers, he said.

Dick said T-Mobile was looking to take market share from AT&T. With a traditional marketing approach, T-Mobile might have simply bombarded all AT&T customers, or all consumers, with advertising, hoping to persuade some to switch.

But that method is highly inefficient because most wireless customers aren't going to switch — either because they're happy with their service or because they're stuck in a two-year contract, he said.

Using Cascabel, T-Mobile was able to quickly find that there was a small subset of AT&T customers who would considering switching. Among the many similar traits of that target audience, Cascabel said they were 37 percent more likely to be black or Hispanic; 194 percent more likely to speak at least three languages; 61 percent less likely to vote; three times more likely to drink canned energy drinks; and 61 percent more likely to be a runner.

“What we find is there are often highly unintuitive relationships,” Dick said. “It's helping people answer questions they didn't think to ask.”

Cascabel, which was developed by Steve Protulipac, CivicScience's director of software, was named for a chili pepper that when dried is used as a rhythm shaker.

“Our database is like a dried out pepper with all these seeds rattling around inside,” he said. “It was a very fitting name.”

Dick formed CivicScience in 2008, and in the last couple of years has begun to catch the attention of investors who see online polls as the future of marketing-data collection.

Investors include Cox Enterprises, an Atlanta media company, New Atlantic Ventures, a Boston venture capital firm, and NPD Group, a New York market research firm.

In January, CivicScience announced that Mark Cuban, the well-known billionaire entrepreneur, Dallas Mavericks basketball team owner and Mt. Lebanon native, joined its advisory board.

Alex Nixon is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7928 or anixon@tribweb.com.

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