Tuesday, July 13, 2010

An Open Letter to Reed Hastings and Netflix

Dear Mr. Hastings:

I was really intrigued by your speech at the National Charter School Conference in Chicago a couple of weeks ago.  I had read quite a bit about your leadership at Netflix and heard that you were on the board of Rocketship Education, an innovative charter school network in San Jose, CA.  Yet I had no idea just how deep your dedication and contribution to education was until I heard both your list of accomplishments and your speech.

I’m not writing about the content of your speech, however, but offering an opportunity to bring your personal and professional worlds together in a mutually beneficial way.

In 2006, Netflix launched the Netflix Prize competition to improve the accuracy of your company’s movie recommendations.  Participants were given a set of data and then tested different algorithms against your own, and in 2009 the prize was finally awarded.  This was a great educational exercise for mathematicians, computer scientists and other researchers, and obviously beneficial for your customers as well.

I propose a new Netflix Prize competition where no user data would be needed, eliminating any privacy concerns.  Instead of mining the most accurate predictions from a given set of data, let’s improve accuracy by increasing the amount of data your recommendation engine has to work with.  In other words, let’s create a competition with a goal of getting users to rate more movies.  The conclusions of any experiment are only as good as the quality of the data, and in this case, quality is also quantity.

Recently, Starbucks was the lead sponsor of the BetaCup Challenge, looking for innovative solutions to the millions of disposable cups the coffee company’s customers were tossing every year.  Most of the entries focused on building a better cup, but the winners had a different idea: take the disposable cups out of the equation altogether by giving people an incentive to bring their own.  Starbucks already gives anyone bringing in reusable mugs a small discount, but the Karma Cup team went further: every tenth person with a reusable mug gets free coffee. 

This simple, elegant solution was successful because it approached the problem from a completely different direction.  That’s exactly what I'm proposing with this new Netflix Prize.  The new competition would be accessible in a way that the high-level mathematics of the original was not, which is where the education connection comes in.

This competition is almost tailor-made for school-age students.  I would encourage kids to enter the competition, offering prizes for a wide range of age groups as well as a grand prize.  The creative thinking, writing and problem solving skills that would be required from the young people who would participate is exactly the kind of thing we want our students to be doing in school.  We know it’s not always happening—at least not at the level that’s needed to prepare them for college and the real world—so we must embrace every opportunity to make it happen.

I suppose adults could enter the competition as well, but that wouldn’t really be the point.  This is an obvious educational opportunity with clear benefits for Netflix as well.  I hope that you’ll consider it for the future.


Tom DeRosa