10 Oct 2014
Ex-Bitly Chief Hilary Mason on Innovation Through Data
Hilary Mason Photo: Colin Maclay

Data gives people superpowers.

Behind her Clark Kentian glasses, Hilary Mason is something of a superhero by that logic. A former chief scientist at Bitly and now data scientist-in-residence at Accel Partners and founder of Fast Forward Labs, she has long been interested in data science and is perhaps more aptly described as a data hipster: She was into the big data movement before it was so in vogue and before it was being strategically deployed by most large companies around the world.

“Data and algorithms,” Mason says, “applied effectively, give us superpowers in the sense that they give us the power to do things we could never have done otherwise.”

Digital Initiative Managing Director Colin Maclay invited Mason to speak at Harvard Business School on Wednesday before a gathering of University faculty, students, and researchers. Maclay was excited to host Mason because of her expertise in shaping how big companies, academics, and startups all talk to each other about data (or don’t), and how this contributes to or impedes innovation.

Mason began her talk with a state-of-data-affairs address for 2014, pulling from one of her favorite Reddit posts to exemplify how, though the potential for capturing and utilizing data is enormous, sometimes it leads to nothing more than cat videos. But she added that she wouldn’t be in the field if she weren’t enormously bullish on data’s future. According to Mason, “We will learn more about human behavior in the next ten years than we have in the last one hundred” because of the growth of the data industry.

Big data’s proliferation is not without its issues, something Mason has learned in her time with Bitly and Accel and continues to grapple with. There is much work to be done behind implementing effective and efficient data gathering methods and accurately interpreting that data once it’s in hand. Those interpretations, in turn, don’t always make for easy action, as ideas often outpace available technology. And this is to say nothing of the ethics that surround data gathering and manipulation, something Mason says is the “most tense topic of conversation in my community, the thing everyone talks about when the doors are closed.”

These are just a few reasons why Mason has launched her own firm, Fast Forward Labs, which she hopes can act as a conduit through which corporations, startups, and academics can communicate. A group of self-described “reformed academics and misfits,” Mason’s team hopes to facilitate productive discussions in the data space by bridging communication gaps and cross-pollinating the seeds of innovation and entrepreneurship in the process.

She closed with some advice she felt had led her to make career choices that were both intelligent and compelling.

“If you ever find yourself getting an offer like I did from Bitly,” she said, “where something is super fun and interesting, even if you don’t know where it’s going, I’d encourage you to say yes.”

You can follow Hilary on Twitter at @hmason and the Digital Initiative at @dighbs.

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