On the plane coming up to Sacramento for the Library of California Board I was reading this month's issue of Wired Magazine. I bought it because I wanted to read Chris Anderson's much-blogged-about article on "Free". I'm partway through Free and I'm sure I'll have something to write about that later.
As I skimmed the magazine I came across a very interesting article about Netflix' contest offering a million dollar prize to anyone who can come up with a movie rating/recommendation algorithm that is 10 percent better than what Netflix currently uses.
The fact that Netflix launched the competition in October 2006, has some amazingly talented people participating including a team from AT nT, but no one has yet come up with an algorithm that is more than 8.57 per cent better than the current system makes clear how challenging it is to systematize making recommendations based on people's individual preferences.
Interestingly the contestant currently in second place is not a computer scientist but Graham Potter, a retired management consultant with an undergraduate degree in psychology and a Masters in operations research (and a high-school-aged daughter with a talent for math) who is using his understanding of psychology to focus the design of his algorithm. (For example by taking into consideration that people's perceptions and tastes evolve over time.)
I thought that the following quote from Mr. Potter was very pertinent -
"The 20th century was about sorting out supply...The 21st is going to be about sorting out demand."
The Wired article goes on to note that "The Internet makes everything available, but mere availability is meaningless if the products remain unknown to potential buyers."
The article gave me another opportunity to think about the challenge libraries face in connecting people with information (or reading material for that matter) that meets their individual needs at a particular point in time and in a particular context.
I think libraries have a bit of an advantage over other entities in this arena through the personal interactions and relationships we have with our library users and the credibility we have as a source of authoritative and unbiased information. I also think that the discussion that is underway and the work that is being done by Bibliocommons and others to use social networking tools and concepts to extendand leveragie libraries' reputation as a trusted source provides a path for libraries to play a key role in "managing demand".