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What data science _should_ be doing

February 20, 2012

I recently read this New York Times article about a company that figures out how to get the best deal when you rent a car. The company is called AutoSlash and the idea is you book with them and they keep looking for good deals, coupons, or free offers every day until you actually need the car.

Wait a minute, a data science model that actually directly improves the lives of its customers? Why can’t we have more of these? Obviously the car companies absolutely hate this idea. But what are they going to do, stop offering online shopping?

Why don’t we see this in every category of shopping? It seems to me that you could do something like this and start a meta-marketplace, where you buy something and then, depending on how long you’re willing to wait until delivery, the model looks for a better online deal, in exchange for a small commission. Then you’d have to make sure that on average the commission is paying for itself with better deals, but my guess is it would work if you allowed it a few days to search per purchase. Or if you really are a doubter, fix a minimum wait time and let the company take some (larger) percentage of the difference between the initial price and the eventual best price.

Another way of saying this, is that when you go online to buy something, depending on the scale (say it’s on the expensive side) you probably shop around for a few days or weeks. Why do that in person? Just have a computer do it for you and tell you at the end what deal it gave you. Don’t get bombarded by ads, let the computer get bombarded by ads for you.

Categories: data science
  1. February 20, 2012 at 9:33 am

    This is a viable business idea and there are already people doing it. For example, Decide, co-founded by University of Washington computer science professor Oren Etzioni, does this for consumer electronics. It monitors price trends and upgrade announcements and tells you whether you should buy or wait for the next upgrade. You could imagine this forming the core of the kind of shopping agent you describe above.

  2. February 20, 2012 at 2:40 pm

    Yeah, think there are a couple of sites out there doing similar type things. However, I am not sure any of the sites work for all products.

  3. AZ
    February 20, 2012 at 4:29 pm

    I think there is room for something like this, but it wouldn’t be easy. I don’t know how AutoSlash is able to rebook your rentals so easily, but maybe the car rental industry is particularly flexible. I doubt anyone is willing to give you a guaranteed price on, say, an Xbox but allow you to back out of the deal if you find a better one in the next two weeks.

    • February 20, 2012 at 5:04 pm

      True, you wouldn’t be able to actually make the purchase and then back out. Instead it would be more like, you look around for the best deal for a few days and then at some point you make the purchase. This is still an algorithm, and there is mathematics behind it as well as training. For example, flight prices change pretty regularly throughout the week and depending on the season.

  4. February 20, 2012 at 6:52 pm

    In my non-university work, one of my projects is reducing losses to investment bank/broker/dealers that are front-running. Of course, they claim they are not front-running (Congress takes their word for it)… so how can there be any societal gain?

  5. February 21, 2012 at 3:39 pm

    This idea has floated around for a long time, in the guise of “intelligent agents” (cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intelligent_agent for more).

  1. March 8, 2012 at 6:59 am
  2. March 8, 2012 at 3:21 pm
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