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March Madness and Google Have Something in Common

CAT SMITH, HOST: The semi-finals of March Madness begin tomorrow, and across the country fans are placing bets on the winners. With 32 teams playing a total of 63 games, the number of possible outcomes is vast. As Kate Stockrahm reports, mathematicians are seeking new ways to predict March Madness winners, and using those methods to better understand Google searches and social media.

KATE STOCKRAHM, BYLINE: When you first think of March Madness, you probably think of basketball fans cheering in crowded bars.


STOCKRAHM: But you might also think of the way people track wins and place bets in the tournament. Fans call this overall sequence of games, wins and losses, “brackets.” They use varying tactics to predict their brackets, some base their choices on a relatively reliable measure, like a team’s ranking. Others use a less reliable one, like a favorite mascot or a parent’s alma mater. But if you’re Dr. Tim Chartier, an applied mathematician and professor at Davidson College, you use a method called bracketology.

TIM CHARTIER: So bracketology is a bit of a made up word, it just means the study of brackets.

STOCKRAHM: Bracketology helps Dr. Chartier and his students narrow the dizzying odds around March Madness brackets.

CHARTIER: If you are literally flipping a coin to pick your bracket, then the odds of a perfect bracket are one in nine -- the term is quintillion. So it's nine with 18 zeros after it.

STOCKRAHM: Cedric Fausey is a computer scientist and creator of a website devoted to large numbers. To explain just how big a number nine quintillion is he uses the example of the volume of water flowing over Niagara Falls. Faucy said it would take a QUADdrillion gallons of water around 210 years to go down the Falls...

CEDRIC FAUSEY: But since quintillion is 1000 times more than that, it would take 210,000 years for that much water to go down.

STOCKRAHM: And that’s just one quintillion, we need nine. Dr. Chartier again.

CHARTIER: Wow that’s really big! What is that number? If you could create 1 billion distinct brackets per second and never repeat, it would take you 300 years to create nine quintillion brackets. That's how many distinct brackets there are. And that's your odds if it's 50/50.

STOCKRAHM: Bracketology works like this: Dr. Chartier and his students create mathematical models which weigh certain factors that have proven to better predict a team’s likelihood of winning. For example, they take into account ...

CHARTIER: whether you played home or away or on a neutral court ...

STOCKRAHM: and when each team’s games were played ...

CHARTIER: because generally, you want to look at when teams are winning as you move closer and closer to the tournament.

STOCKRAHM: He says this provides a more scientific way to build a bracket, less relying on mascots and more relying on proven datasets to decide winners. But Dr. Chartier’s research wasn’t originally about basketball tournaments. It was about data science.

CHARTIER: And what we were actually interested in was web search, that when Google for instance, returns a query, why is that page number one?

STOCKRAHM: It turns out that March Madness bracketology and Google search share a common methodology. Both make rankings based on selected data and past history. Whereas bracketology might pick a likely game winner by focusing on away wins, Google decides what link to show first based on weighing factors like a person’s location or recent purchases.

DR CHARTIER: And amazingly, this very kind of “pop culture” March Madness tournament, is this sandbox that lets us develop methods with a very small system where you only have 63 games...

STOCKRAHM: He says by trying to predetermine the outcome of those games, we can learn how to develop better predictive algorithms overall. And that can lead to improved search results on Google and on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. Meanwhile back on the courts, and in bars and offices across the country...March Madness semi-finals start tomorrow.

Kate Stockrahm, Columbia Radio News.


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