For Mainak Mazumdar, Data Is the People Behind It

"We measure everything."

It doesn’t get more comprehensive than that. But that’s how Mainak Mazumdar, our Chief Research Officer for media measurement, sees Nielsen’s role in the market—one characterized by myriad options and seemingly endless variety when it comes to media consumption.

Of course, that role has grown dramatically from when we started more than 90 years ago. Video and audio options have splintered across devices, giving consumers multiple ways to watch, stream and share digital content. While these changes present significant challenges for both Nielsen and our clients, Mainak and his team of more than 300 data scientists approach each new device as an opportunity to do what they do best—deliver cross-platform, representative media measurement in a way that is accurate, timely and useful to clients.

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To do so, Mainak has set his team to cracking the codes hidden within the data, unearthing interesting patterns and data points. It’s these “outliers,” as Mainak calls them, that can significantly affect a client’s ability to make accurate predictions.

“Outliers are those use cases that are most interesting—the ones that actually tell you more than the mean,” explains Mainak. “So we are always looking for outlier cases or use cases that we could study, and that actually helps us to prepare for the future.”

The key to unlocking these outliers? For Mainak, it’s simple: Keep the people at the forefront.

The People Behind the Data

With an aura of zen that comes out any time he speaks, Mainak’s approach to data might surprise you. The main focus of his high-level mindset isn’t even necessarily about data.

“We are relentlessly focused on studying people,” he says. “We are not studying machines. We are not studying your cell phone or your television. We collect data from them, but we are interested in understanding how a person, or a household, or a society, or region, or ethnicity, interacts with media. What do you consume? How often? Whom are you consuming with? And how are you reacting to the media? These are pretty important, big principles upon which our measurement framework is built.”

“We are relentlessly focused on studying people. These are big principles upon which our measurement framework is built.”

An avid reader of poetry and literature, Mainak breaks the mold of the expected data guy by bringing his creative side into it. To effectively measure humans and the trail of data they leave behind, you need both sides of the brain, according to Mainak. And much like poetry, data has patterns, rhythms and structures that can make or break its quality.

In Search of Outliers

Social media is a prime example of where Mainak and his team’s eagle-eyed focus has been able to unlock patterns within the data to predict trends before they happen.

“If you look at the evolution of social media as a category, we have been studying that for the last 10 years. And we have actually predicted pretty well how it’s going to influence and evolve, and how, as a society and consumers, we’re going to embrace it.”

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But knowing where the social media landscape is heading isn’t something that comes strictly from looking at data. Just like the people that use those networks, it’s about understanding the platforms, differentiating features and demographics that help make them up.

“When I’m not working, I spend a lot of time on social media, especially Twitter, and I try to consume as much as I can,” says Mainak. “And I do that because it gives me insights into where the media business is moving, and how we could prepare. This allows me to understand how people are consuming media—so when we are designing our measurement systems and processes in terms of the panel and methodologies, we are better prepared.”

“I spend a lot of time on social media. It gives me insights into where the media business is moving and how we could prepare.”

That clarity has led to some massive developments in how we use those social networks to adapt our models and our expand capabilities. Mainak was heavily involved in the implementation of our Digital Ad Ratings, “integrating our national TV panel with U.S. Census data and Facebook profiles,” as he explains it. “That’s some pretty seminal work, and, from a data science perspective, it opened up a lot of opportunities.”

So while many might think that algorithms and automation will be the lynchpins to success in a future where technology and data prevail, Mainak is keeping people at the heart of the data.

“The more technology becomes all-pervasive in our lives, the more important human judgment is. And I think that’s where a true data scientist can bring both. Yes, we work with a vast, massive amount of data and glean information from it, but we also bring human judgment and interpretation and make sure we’re giving the right insights.”