FEATURE1 June 2021

The history of the data economy: The birth of customer insight

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Data analytics Features Impact

Data is now the fuel that drives business, identifying potential markets, shaping new products, and targeting would-be consumers. To understand where we may be heading next, Impact has partnered with Significance, the magazine of the Royal Statistical Society, to jointly publish a series exploring the past, present and future of the data economy. The first part tells the story of the birth of customer insight. By Timandra Harkness

Today’s data-driven economy relies heavily on mathematics, statistics and computer science, but its roots owe as much to pragmatic trial and error as to pioneers of social statistics such as Adolphe Quetelet.

While theoreticians wrangled over how humans varied, and how to quantify this, those who saw the value of data in the nascent mass society were already collecting and using it.

The first people to treat public opinion as a form of data were newspaper publishers in 19th-century America, who used ‘straw polls’ of readers to anticipate election results. The Harrisburg Pennsylvanian’s 1824 presidential election poll is often cited as the first political poll. It accurately predicted that Andrew Jackson would win the popular vote, though John Quincy Adams was ultimately elected president.

This straw-poll approach continued in use until the 1930s. Although newspapers actively went out to survey different groups in the population, they relied more on very large numbers of responses than on any statistical theory to accurately reflect the mood of the ...