Assistant Professor Aleksi Aaltonen is interested in how people work with data in real-world business settings. “Not just data analytics–there are a lot of people studying that. I’m interested in data as a new kind of resource for economic activity.” It’s an interest that goes back to Aaltonen’s Ph.D. thesis.
“You need to think about finding, cleaning, integrating, and interpreting the data before you can actually analyze it. We often ignore or gloss over this work,” he says. But, he stresses, if the business world wants to harness the increasingly massive data at its fingertips, someone must pay attention to these practical matters.
One of Aaltonen’s recent projects, forthcoming in the Journal of Management Information Systems, looks at a company with a new business model. “They wanted to turn a mobile network into an advertising space,” he says. People in the network would get advertisements via text message. But counting how many people receive such an ad can be a surprisingly complex thing, according to Aaltonen. After all, no one is going to buy an advertising space unless you can prove someone will pay attention to it.
“If we send a message to a person does that count as a person seeing it? Or do they need to take some other action for it to count?” he asks.
“Solving these problems is surprisingly laborious,” says Aaltonen. The flashier subjects of data analytics and artificial intelligence get more research attention, according to Aaltonen. “But answering these mundane questions is just as important when it comes to actually make use of data in a business setting.”
Aaltonen is also exploring new ways of organizing information. “I’ve studied Wikipedia a lot, and what is most fascinating is the question of how is the system managed. How did Wikipedia learn to govern the 1 billion contributions into a high-quality encyclopedia with no managers?” He thinks part of the answer lies in transparency. On Wikipedia, for example, “you can see who added, removed or changed every a comma,” notes Aaltonen.
There’s a tendency in big business to exert managerial control over everything, according to Aaltonen. “But the ultimate aim of a firm is not to control things, it’s to make a profit. And if you can make better products that people want to use, then you have to look at that,” he says. Wikipedia is probably the most used reference product in the world. “It’s a new way of creating valuable products and businesses have to stay on top of that.”