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Member Spotlight – Kaiser Fung

1 July 2013 297 views No Comment
Melissa Gotherman, ASA Graphic Designer/Production Coordinator


Kaiser Fung

Kaiser Fung

Kaiser Fung is a statistician with more than a decade of experience applying statistical methods to unlocking the relationship between advertising and customer behaviors. He holds a BSE from Princeton University, an MBA from Harvard Business School, and an MPhil from Cambridge University. Although, don’t let master’s in philosophy fool you; the degree is in statistics, despite the unusual name. “Isn’t statistics a kind of philosophy?” asked Fung. “Statistics is about reasonable ways of thinking about, structuring, and dealing with uncertainty. We value reasonableness, not truth.”

Fung became interested in statistics at Princeton’s operations research program (now operations research and financial engineering). He gives credit to having several great teachers: Howard Wainer, who guest taught the intro stats course; Dick DeVeaux, who taught design of experiments; and John Mulvey, an expert in stochastic modeling and also his thesis advisor.

Desiring some practical work experience after graduating college, Fung decided to go into management consulting. “There are a variety of business problems that can be solved using statistics or operations research methods,” he said. “Business managers must deal with uncertainty, and they are always optimizing one performance metric or another.”

In the early 2000s, Fung realized having a foot in both camps (statistics and business) gave him a unique advantage—he was comfortable speaking both the technical and business languages. Eventually, he found his way back to statistics by taking a job in analytics at American Express, where he quickly learned analyzing real-world data is a world away from doing problem sets—and it was both fun and challenging.

Fung commends American Express, with their long history of using statistics in managing credit risk and marketing, as being one of the best training grounds for business statisticians. “I’m a big fan of apprenticeships. Being smart is not enough; experience imparts wisdom. I hate to see people waste their time walking into quicksand that others have already identified.”

Currently, Fung is employed as vice president of business intelligence and analytics at Vimeo, a high-quality video hosting platform for creative people. “Vimeo is purely a web business, which means we have lots of data.” They also have a complex business model. Vimeo’s main revenue comes from their subscribers, which leads to more traditional analyses, typical of direct marketing and subscription companies. They also have onsite advertising driven by their 100 million monthly visitors. Fung’s team must track website usage and behavior of these visitors. “Vimeo tends to attract high-quality content that viewers are willing to pay for. Recently, we launched Vimeo On Demand, which allows our subscribers to charge for their videos. That gets us close to the entertainment business model. This means I never have a dull moment. There are more problems to solve than my team can handle.”

Fung also writes the acclaimed blog Junk Charts. Junk Charts pioneered the critical examination of data and graphics in the mass media. Since 2005, the blog has received rave reviews from Science magazine, The Guardian, Yahoo!, and Stanford University Libraries.

Besides his successful blog, Fung has authored two books. His first, Numbers Rule Your World: The Hidden Influence of Probabilities and Statistics on Everything You Do, was born out of his dissatisfaction with how statistics is taught. “By teaching it as a math subject, we fail to educate enough people to understand and practice statistical thinking. It’s truly unfortunate as life is filled with uncertainty and everyone can use some statistics.”

Inspired by the success of Freakonomics, Fung wanted to explain statistics without using mathematics. “What impressed me was the complete absence of math in the book. There were no equations or formulas, but more than that, the authors made no attempt to describe the methods used to arrive at their conclusions. That’s radical for a book in which every key result is based on regression analysis.

“Recent books like The Drunkard’s Walk and Naked Statistics are still stuck in textbook-lite mode. The chapters in these books mirror the intro stats curriculum, from probability rules to sampling distributions to hypothesis testing to regression. I want to explain statistics without using mathematics. I want to treat statistics as liberal arts,” says Fung.

His latest book, Numbersense: How to Use Big Data to Your Advantage, was set for release on July 12. With Big Data being the buzzword of the moment, we have all become consumers of data analyses. “Lots of people tell us all kinds of things they claim are supported by data. Unfortunately, many of these analyses are not to be believed. It’s not that the data analysts are ill-intentioned—when there is a lot of data, it is just very confusing.”

Fung describes the term “numbersense” as something all great data analysts share—the ability to sniff around a data interpretation. “In the book, I want to share some of my own methods. I hope readers will pick up a thing or two and become smarter consumers of data analyses.”

The book is targeted at anyone who has ever come across some form of data analysis in the media and wondered, “Wait … what?” You may have had doubts about the official unemployment rate, you may be frustrated by the constantly changing stories about whether coffee is good or bad for you, or you may have been burned once or twice by bankers pitching their favorite tech stocks. As with his previous book, Fung leaves the math in the background. “I want readers to grasp the statistics without having to learn the language of mathematics.”

Recent graduates who have taken a statistics course should read Numbersense, too. “When I hire for my team, I come across many candidates who can do the math, but don’t have the numbersense. I’ve been there myself.”

When asked what advice he would give to young statisticians just beginning their careers in data visualization, Fung says, “Keep sketching, and keep trashing. Settle your story and then find the tools, never the other way around. Hate the default. Imagine your audience. If you don’t have an audience, find one. Inspect your data. Have a point of view. Keep a portfolio.”

Fung is a fellow of the Royal Statistical Society and an adjunct professor at New York University, where he teaches practical statistics. Visit his blog Junk Charts to learn more.

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