Faculty Spotlight

Q&A: How Data and Precision Systems Are Changing the World

Posted May 01 2023
Zach Tumin (l.) and Madeleine Want, pictured here, are the coauthors of Precisely.


In their new book, Precisely: Working with Precision Systems in a World of Data, Zachary Tumin and Madeleine Want MPA ’21 show how precision systems can be used to create the change that leaders want to see in the world. Unlike other business management books, Precisely was written for those who may not be familiar with real-time precision systems; it aims to provide a tool kit to power up people and technology.

Zachary Tumin is a Columbia SIPA adjunct professor who served in senior executive positions in public administration, industry, and academia, from Harvard Kennedy School to Wall Street’s Financial Services Technology Consortium to New York City government. One of his SIPA students was Want, who caught his attention through her thoughtful writing about data. Their connection during Tumin’s semester-long course turned into an opportunity to become colleagues as they partnered on the writing of Precisely.

Madeleine Want, who studied technology policy at SIPA, is now vice president of data at Fanatics Betting and Gaming. Before attending the School she worked at companies including Audible and Axel Springer.

In this SIPA News Q&A, the two authors discuss how precision systems can be used to craft smart policy and create more effective systems, and more.

Precisely, by Zachary Tumin and Madeleine Want [book cover].

How do you describe your book to people outside your field?

Madeleine Want: I tend to say that it’s a book about data written by data people for non-data people. The book is meant to be a bridge to the vast majority of the world who are not data-forward and give a really understandable, relatable glimpse into how data is being used across a range of industries.

Zachary Tumin: Amplifying Maddy's comments, this is a book about how managers have used the new technologies of artificial intelligence and machine learning to create change exactly the way they want that change to happen – in health care, journalism, combat, sports, and practically all sectors. It provides an account of both the successes and the failures of those who want to bring about the change they urgently need, whether in the voting booth on election day or in a hospital emergency room overflowing  with COVID patients. That's why it's essential for the leaders of tomorrow to read this today.

How do we use precision systems from a systemic level of using data to be able to craft smarter policy responses to major crises, like, say, a pandemic?

MW: We could use Bluetooth to do proximity tracing automatically and it could just leapfrog over all these traditional adoption problems, like having to give data to the government. All the various things that people in different countries have different perceptions of — we could all just make this very easy, which is what the promise and the magic of technology has always been. I also think that the answer is different depending on what country you're in. People in Singapore, for example, are more likely to trust the government with their data than they are to trust the private company with their data, whereas in America that would obviously be flipped. 

How can we leverage data to work more effectively? In a related vein, how do you envision large reams of data impacting the future of work?

ZT: AI-enabled precision systems function well today in routine back-office tasks. Clearly large-firm recommendation systems like Netflix or Amazon drive trillion-dollar businesses. For new-to-digital firms, whether in transportation or medicine or agriculture, the future of work is going to be distributed in a much more widespread fashion across networks, headed toward autonomy. As that happens, AI will emerge as another control lever for managers and executives in shaping business outcomes – in the coming era, precisely as they wish. Keeping employees engaged and clients and customers satisfied will depend on how managers design these systems, build them, and continuously improve them at scale. 

MW: What I see every day in my work is this emphasis on demonstrating early value as an imperative for achieving change as a mid-level manager. If you don't have a ton of sway in an organization, you can't just set strategy instead of vision. You have to come up with something tangible pretty quickly and find a way to innovate within whatever resources you have available to you. Be they individual contributors or mid-level managers, you're going to have to bring something to show and tell. 

How do you think organizations will respond to these new opportunities?

MW: The direction of the ship takes longer to change with the size of the ship.

ZT:  These are still the early days. Once precision systems leap into regulated space – in financial services, aviation, and medicine, for example – and there is every reason they should, given their power – organizations are going to be pressed to arrive at new governance arrangements, new performance expectations, new talents and technologies, and new leadership. The good news for leaders is that these opportunities exist all around them. They have to keep their ears and eyes open for the right way to move because the political management of these innovations is crucial. 

What advice do you have for organizations introducing AI through its sensor networks?

ZT: They are still working through some of the great coordination issues of where humans should be in the chain of events. These are the same issues that even some of the world's most sophisticated cyber security firms are wrestling with. But as we turn to the news cycle, we can see from the failures at Norfolk Southern railroad and Silicon Valley Bank that you can’t just bolt precision systems onto existing ways of doing business and hope for the best. People and platforms can have a hard time getting along where alerts are ignored, where algorithms are not proven and tested, where leaders think they can just set this stuff out and it runs on its own. It cannot. If we had one message for leaders, executives, and managers is that you must take care of this. This requires constant vigilance and feeding. You can be extraordinarily successful and you can still fail in a heartbeat.

How do precision systems fit into your system in terms of managing and creating systems that are effective and efficient?

ZT: Precision systems change the traditional tradeoffs managers face, harnessing massive amounts of data to achieve safety in the factory and strong financial performance all at once, for example; or reduce pesticide use and produce greater crop yields; or sell more subscriptions at higher prices. But leaders need to know these possibilities – and how to shape the performance of organizations with precision systems to achieve them. 

MW: We were intentionally writing a book that is pragmatically useful and interesting without tiptoeing too far down the line into the bigger data problem. One of the themes that we do reiterate is how in all of these situations and scenarios in the world, there are multiple ways to succeed. There isn’t just one and only one way. There is plenty of proof of the precision method failing, and we detail several of those. There are questions about adoption and speed and risk management that are valid, but it's not really postulating on should or shouldn't because it kind of already is.

What is the big lesson of this book for aspiring policymakers?

MW: The interesting trend that I noticed was what I would characterize as a knee-jerk resistance to technology and data, which I think could be dangerous if encouraged or if left unchecked. Accompanying the policy decisions with a much higher level of technical and data literacy is going to be imperative for people to succeed in policy-related positions. 

ZT: Policy makers using precision systems now have abundantly more choices available to them – and can worry less about externalities that have plagued leaders’ decisions since the dawn of time.  Drone warfare may be an unwelcome development for many, for example, but as firms like Zipline have shown drones can help distribute scarce cold-chain blood supplies and vaccines to civilian populations far from hospitals quickly, precisely, and with near complete coverage of a nation like Rwanda. 

And finally, Zach, what do you enjoy the most about teaching at SIPA?

ZT: I love seeing my students share in the discovery of how powerful technology can be when properly governed, harnessed, and developed, all to make the world a better place for it. What I'm seeing is extraordinary writing and thoughtfulness from non-expert practitioners sitting in the SIPA classroom who come to appreciate the power of these new technologies and the essential nature of managing to create the change that's possible with them.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.