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Kaggle's Contests: Crunching Numbers for Fame and Glory

Kaggle’s contests lure PhDs and whiz kids to solve companies’ data problems

A couple years ago, Netflix held a contest to improve its algorithm for recommending movies. It posted a bunch of anonymized information about how people rate films, then challenged the public to best its own Cinematch algorithm by 10 percent. About 51,000 people in 186 countries took a crack at it. (The winner was a seven-person team that included scientists from AT&T Labs.) The $1 million prize was no doubt responsible for much of the interest. But the fervor pointed to something else as well: The world is full of data junkies looking for their next fix.

In April 2010, Anthony Goldbloom, an Australian economist, decided to capitalize on that urge. He founded a company called Kaggle to help businesses of any size run Netflix-style competitions. The customer supplies a data set, tells Kaggle the question it wants answered, and decides how much prize money it’s willing to put up. Kaggle shapes these inputs into a contest for the data-crunching hordes. To date, about 25,000 people—including thousands of PhDs—have flocked to Kaggle to compete in dozens of contests backed by Ford, Deloitte, Microsoft, and other companies. The interest convinced investors, including PayPal co-founder Max Levchin, Google Chief Economist Hal Varian, and Web 2.0 kingpin Yuri Milner, to put $11 million into the company in November.