Hackathon team looks to understand human behavior in markets using big data

oneweek, hackathon, Hack the Markets team

Some of the members of the Hack the Markets team, from left to right: Mayank Shrivastava, Di Wang, Apurv Pant (far back), Yi Liu (red shirt), Gu Xu (far back), Walter Sun, Saad Sheikh (far back near wall), Rangan Majumder and Nick Roberts.(Photography by Scott Eklund /Red Box Pictures)

For Apurv Jain, it is something he once imagined doing when he was a student at MIT: Working with a team of fellow economists, computer scientists and social scientists from varied backgrounds to solve a problem. Now he’s getting the chance to do that in the //oneweek hackathon for employees this week at Microsoft.

“It’s a dream come true,” he said. It’s “one of the best things I’ve ever done.”

Jain’s “Hack the Markets” team is one of more than 2,200 from across the company participating in the hackathon, in venues all over the world, to innovate and to solve problems. The hackathon is a key part of CEO Satya Nadella’s effort to encourage employees to adopt a challenger mindset. It also means getting out of the comfort zone of working with the same team members and brainstorming with employees from different parts of the company.

Jain’s team is looking at being able to understand investor behavior and then predict market moves as well as macroeconomic indicators given people’s mental state.

Consider, for example, that Jain never knew fellow teammate Walter Sun until the hackathon brought them together. Sun, software development manager for the Core Ranking team at Bing, is an engineer with prior background in finance, while Jain, who is a group portfolio manager for Microsoft, is an economist. Turns out they both attended MIT. And they both enjoy solving problems and talking about how to go about doing that.

“This is a great opportunity to leverage One Microsoft, the whole idea that we have a lot of different teams capable of a lot of different things, and we have this expertise which we can share,” said Sun of the hackathon.

Sun’s team at Bing is the one that has worked on Bing Predicts, created by teams at Bing experimenting with useful ways to harness the power of the search engine to model outcomes of events. They’ve been very successful at it, correctly predicting the winners of this year’s “American Idol” and “Dancing with the Stars” competitions. Most recently, during soccer’s premier tournament in Brazil, Bing Predicts was 100 percent accurate picking the winner in 15 out of 15 games, “finishing the knockout rounds with a perfect bracket,” Sun wrote in a blog post.

(“We admit, we did pick Brazil to beat the Netherlands in the consolation match for third place, but hey, this stuff is hard!” he added, in that post.)

Scott Counts, a senior researcher for Microsoft Research, and a member of the team, said he has been “pleasantly surprised there is a real focus, and actually even sort of a framework in financial thinking for understanding human behavior, and the importance of human behavior.

“Sentiment, different types of emotion, fear, certainty — all those types of things – those are the types of variables I’ve been looking at in other domains,” he said. “So, it’s been really cool, actually, to see there’s an almost formalized way of thinking about that.”

It’s also been cool, Jain says, to see not only what different team members’ objectives are, “but most importantly, how everybody thinks is so different. Scott, for example, will have a different research angle on what something means about people, or why you should care about how many words they’re using to express themselves. And I would have never thought of that. Or, like Walter, how he’s thinking about different aspects of pulling the data.”

As far as the outcome of the hackathon, “If we succeed in something, it’s fantastic.” But, “Just to be able to work with people of this caliber is huge,” he said.

“There’s not that many places on the planet that I can do this, so this is great.”

Suzanne Choney
Microsoft News Center Staff