Bring a bunch of French geeks together, add millions of random entries from Facebook, Twitter or Tumblr, stir and serve. What do you get? From one Paris-based startup: A hefty dose of math -- and a faceoff between U.S. President Barack Obama and Canadian singer Justin Bieber.
MFG Labs set up shop three years ago in the 9th arrondissement of the French capital with the idea of using complex algorithms -- like the ones that made you sweat in college, just much harder -- to make sense of oceans of data.
The skill is in high demand. Advertisers need it to better target shoppers, while companies experiment with it to figure out consumers' tastes and purchasing behavior. Such opportunities have made so-called big data fashionable in France. Afdel, an association of software and web application makers, asked the French government in February to co-finance a 300 million euro ($390 million) investment fund to help create 100 big data startups by 2018.
"There's all this data available on Twitter, Facebook, Google Maps ... but it's dirty data, it's in a raw state," said Joachim de Lezardiere, MFG's chief operating officer. "We'll clean it all up."
French mathematics professors Pierre-Louis Lions, a Fields medalist, Jean-Michel Lasry and Olivier Guéant joined with local entrepreneur Henri Verdier to found MFG. The startup, whose name stands for Mean Field Games, a math theory developed by Lions and Lasry, employs about 20 people, including specialists in theoretical math, statistics, the web and advertising.
Together they build platforms to help companies gather online data about consumers. The point: Figure out a way to parse the free information and make a working app from it -- fast. In a country where innovation often has trouble making it out of the lab, MFG's goal is to whip ideas into products in just a few months.
MFG is taking advantage of one of France's strong points: math. The country produces the highest number of math, science and technology graduates in the European Union. An increasing number of them are putting their talents to use in digital entertainment and online services.
The startup, which advises companies on their online advertising and brand strategy, already has film studio Warner Bros. and book publisher Hachette among its clients. And MFG is hiring -- a note of optimism amid France's unemployment rate, which is at a 13-year high.
Among MFG's applications, one it's experimenting with draws a constellation graph of your Facebook social life to help you visualize your network. Another, created for a client, uses data from pictures on Flickr to map out where tourists go when they visit France.
Evaluating your impact on Twitter is another one they're working on. It took MFG three months to go from idea to beta product with Where Does My Tweet Go?, a Twitter scorecard that measures the range and path of a person's tweets. This can indicate how far-reaching the posts are.
That's where Obama and Bieber come in. The singer has the most followers on Twitter, with almost 38 million, ahead of fellow pop star Lady Gaga (36 million) and Obama (30 million). But does being the most popular person on Twitter also make you the most influential?
MFG's app shows that while Bieber's tweets reach more people in the first circle of followers, his missives don't make it very far beyond that because people tend not to retweet his posts. Obama, by contrast, gets retweeted more and for a longer time, giving him a bigger impact overall.
A beta version of Where Does My Tweet Go? was made available to the public last week. Discussions are under way to figure out how Twitter could use the app to show the kind of impact Web media can have, Lezardiere said.
If MFG's apps catch on, the startup could soon find its own following of true "Beliebers."