Almost Famous: Leslie Fine of Crowdcast

A feature wherein All Things Digital looks at up-and-coming and innovative start-ups you should know about.

This week: We had a Skype visit with, asked some questions of and gathered a few pertinent stats about Leslie Fine and Crowdcast, an uber-geeky business intelligence tool that helps decision makers tap into the collective knowledge of employees.

In other words: No one person knows the future, but all of us together might.

Who: Leslie Fine

What: Chief Scientist, Crowdcast

Why: Crowdcast blends ex-Caltech statistical analysis chops with a simple wagering interface to create a game played among employees. At its most basic, it provides a way for businesses to download all the experience and knowledge possessed by their employees about an arena or pending decision.

Where: (Web site); @lesliefine (Twitter); San Francisco (analog place)

Who else: Inkling also provides predictive tools, but isn’t as consulting-oriented.

Five Stats You Won’t Find in Her Facebook Profile

When Did You Catch the Geek Bug?: When I was at Caltech, my adviser, John Ledyard, was amazing at making very complex analysis problems very folksy. He was very good at telling stories.

Has a Geek Crush On: Are dead people okay? If so, his name is Leo Hurwicz; he won the Nobel Prize in mechanism design a few years ago.

What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up?: I have to grow up?

Wishes There Was an App for: Oh yeah, it’s actually my Plan B. I call it Seat Sniper. You tell it about your seating preferences (window, front, exit row) and in the 72 hours before a flight when seats are moving around, it continually pings the airlines Web site to see if there are any maximizing moves to me made. Then, it does it for you.

Fails At: I’m terrible at delegating, and that’s something I am having to learn here.

Bio in 140 Characters

Wesleyan, then to CalTech. She joined HP Labs; wasn’t ready to retire. Became chief scientist for Crowdcast, so she could tell the future.

The Five Questions

Crowdcast seems super technical. Break it down for us.

Crowdcast is an enterprise software platform that helps companies make better forecasts by tapping the knowledge stored in their employees. People you hire are the best informed to help businesses understand their own targets. For lack of a better term, we ask them to place bets on things that we then tie back to real incentives when bets are made accurately. The software plays like a stock market or betting game. It is like duck on a pond. It seems simple on top, but underneath there are lots of moving parts at work.

What kinds of questions is Crowdcast good at answering?

We spent a lot of time in our first year as a new company debating that because prediction markets can, in theory, solve any kind of problem. Where we’ve seen the most traction are in a couple areas.

Questions whose outcomes will be knowable in three months to a year and where there is very dispersed knowledge in your organization tend to do well. An example would be bringing a new product to market, where there are many silos involved and lots of funky incentives. We nail questions like, “When will it [a new product] come out?” and “How good will it be?” and “How much will it cost to do so?”

How do you handle outliers? They might be telling you something you need to know, and they might just be way off.

Yeah, that’s a good question. We pay close attention to game players whose predictions are one standard deviation or more away from the average guess. They get a little light box pop-up that asks them why they’ve bid that way, so that we can gather any potential special intelligence.

What’s your ah-ha technology moment, when you realized you were living in the future?

We had this little app at HP Labs called Zoomgraph–this is in 2000–where you could look at all the data flows in your computer.

There’s like a million free Facebook apps that do that today, but, in 2000, it was showing back to me, on a screen, a map of my world. It was very navel-gazing, which we did a lot of at Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) Labs. It was amazing in a passive way.

You work on developing games intended to tell the future. Are you competitive about this stuff?

Ha ha. Yeah, we use our product internally to predict all kinds of stuff–some business related, some just fun. I’m very competitive with it. We keep track of points here and I think I’m 4x above the nearest competitor. I bought most of my Christmas presents with Amazon (AMZN) gift cards I won that way.

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