One of the few aspects of my job I enjoy more than designing a new market is actually building it. Turning some wild concept that sprung from the minds of a bunch of scientists into a working artifact is a huge rush, and I can only smile as people from around the world commence tinkering with the thing, often in ways I never expected. The “build it” phase of a research project, besides being a ton of fun, inevitably sheds important light back on the original design in a virtuous cycle.

In that vein, I am thrilled to announce the beta launch of PredictWiseQ, a fully operational example of our latest combinatorial prediction market design: “A tractable combinatorial market maker using constraint generation”, published in the 2012 ACM Conference on Electronic Commerce.

You read the paper.1  Now play the game.2 Help us close the loop.

PredictWiseQ Make-a-Prediction screenshot October 2012

PredictWiseQ is our greedy attempt to scarf up as much information as is humanly possible and use it, wisely, to forecast nearly every possible detail about the upcoming US presidential election. For example, we can project how likely it is that Romney will win Colorado but lose the election (6.2%), or that the same party will win both Ohio and Pennsylvania (77.6%), or that Obama will paint a path of blue from Canada to Mexico (99.5%). But don’t just window shop, go ahead and customize and buy a prediction or ten for yourself. Your actions help inform the odds of your own predictions and, crucially, thousands of other related predictions at the same time.

For example, a bet on Obama to win both Ohio and Florida can automatically raise his odds of winning Ohio alone. That’s because our market maker knows and enforces the fact that Obama winning OH and FL can never be more likely than him winning OH. After every trade, we find and fix thousands of these logical inconsistencies. In other words, our market maker identifies and cleans up arbitrage wherever it finds it. But there’s a limit to how fastidious our market maker can be. It’s effectively impossible to rid the system of all arbitrage: doing so is NP-hard, or computationally intractable. So we clean up a good bit of arbitrage, but there should be plenty left.

So here’s a reader’s challenge: try to identify arbitrage on PredictWiseQ that we did not. Go ahead and profit from it and, when you’re ready, please let me and others know about it in the comments. I’ll award kudos to the reader who finds the simplest arbitrage.

Why not leave all of the arbitrage for our traders to profit from themselves? That’s what nearly every other market does, from Ireland-based Intrade, to Las Vegas bookmakers, to the Chicago Board Options Exchange. The reason is, we’re operating a prediction market. Our goal is to elicit information. Even a completely uninformed trader can profit from arbitrage via a mechanical plug-and-chug process. We should reserve the spoils for people who provide good information, not those armed (solely) with fast or clever algorithms. Moreover, we want every little crumb of information that we get, in whatever form we get it, to immediately impact as many of the thousands or millions of predictions that it relates to as possible. We don’t want to wait around for traders to perform this propagation on their own and, besides, it’s a waste of their brain cells: it’s a job much better suited for a computer anyway.

Intrade offers an impressive array of predictions about the election, including who will win in all fifty states. In a sense, PredictWiseQ is Intrade to the 57th power. In a combinatorial market, a prediction can be any (Boolean) function of the state outcomes, an ungodly degree of flexibility. Let’s do some counting. In the election, there are actually 57 “states”: 48 winner-takes-all states, Washington DC, and two proportional states — Nebraska and Maine — that can split their electoral votes in 5 and 3 unique ways, respectively. Ignoring independent candidates, all 57 base “states” can end up colored Democratic blue or Republican Red. So that’s 2 to the power 57, or 144 quadrillion possible maps that newscasters might show us after the votes are tallied on November 6th. A prediction, like “Romney wins Ohio”, is the set of all outcomes where the prediction is true, in this case all 72 quadrillion maps where Ohio is red. The number of possible predictions is the number of sets of outcomes, or 2 to the power 144 quadrillion. That’s more than a googol, though less than a googolplex (maybe next year). To get a sense of how big that is, if today’s fastest supercomputer starting counting at the instant of the big bang, it still wouldn’t be anywhere close reaching a googol yet.

Create your own league to compare your political WiseQ among friends. If you tell us how much each player is in for, we’ll tell you how to divvy things up at the end. Or join the “Friends Of Dave” (FOD) league. If you finish ahead of me in my league, I’ll buy you a beer (or beverage of your choice) the next time I see you, or I’ll paypal you $5 if we don’t cross paths.

PredictWiseQ is part of PredictWise, a fascinating startup of its own. Founded by my colleague David Rothschild, PredictWise is the place to go for thousands of accurate, real-time predictions on politics, sports, finance, and entertainment, aggregated and curated from around the web. The PredictWiseQ Game is a joint effort among David, Miro, Sebastien, Clinton, and myself.

The academic paper that PredictWiseQ is based on is one of my favorites — owed in large part to my coauthors Miro and Sebastien, two incredible sciengineers. As is often the case, the theory looks bulletproof on paper. But I’ve learned the hard way many times that you don’t really know if a design is good until you try it. Or more accurately, until you build it and let a crowd of other people try it.

So, dear crowd, please try it! Bang on it. Break it. (Though please tell me how you did, so we might fix it.) Tell me what you like and what is horribly wrong. Mostly, have fun playing a market that I believe represents the future of markets in the post-CDA era, a.k.a the digital age.

__________
1 Or not.
2 Or not.

If you’re in the Bay Area, come join us at the 2011 ACM Conference on Electronic Commerce, June 5-9 in San Jose, CA, one of sixteen conferences that comprise the ACM Federated Computing Research Conference, the closest thing we have to a unified computer research conference.

The main EC’11 conference includes talks on prediction markets, crowdsourcing, auctions, game theory, finance, lending, and advertising. The papers span a spectrum from theoretical to applied. If you want evidence of the latter, look no further than the roster of corporate sponsors: eBay, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo!.

There are also a number of interesting workshops and tutorials in conjunction with EC’11 this year, including:

Workshops:

  • 7th Ad Auction Workshop
  • Workshop on Bayesian Mechanism Design
  • Workshop on Social Computing and User Generated Content
  • 6th Workshop on Economics of Networks, Systems, and Computation
  • Workshop on Implementation Theory

Tutorials:

  • Bayesian Mechanism Design
  • Conducting Behavioral Research Using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk
  • Matching and Market Design
  • Outside Options in Mechanism Design
  • Measuring Online Advertising Effectiveness

The umbrella FCRC conference includes talks by 2011 Turing Award winner Leslie G. Valiant, IBM Watson creator David A. Ferrucci, and CMU professor, CAPTCHA co-inventor, and Games With a Purpose founder Luis von Ahn.

Hope to see many of you there!

Cantor Gaming mobile device for in-running bettingLast January, a few friends and I visited the sportsbook at the M Casino in Las Vegas, one of several sportsbooks now run by Cantor Gaming, a division of Wall Street powerhouse Cantor Fitzgerald. Traditional sportsbooks stop taking bets when the sporting event in question begins. In contrast, Cantor allows “in-running betting”, a clunky phrase that means you can bet during the event: as touchdowns are scored, interceptions are made, home runs are stolen, or buzzers are beaten. Cantor went a step further and built a mobile device you can carry around with you anywhere in the casino to place your bets while watching games on TV, drink in hand. (Cantor also runs spread-betting operations in the UK and bought the venerable Hollywood Stock Exchange prediction market with the goal of turning it into a real financial exchange; they nearly succeeded, obtaining the green light from the CFTC before being shut down by lobbyists, er, Congress.)

Back to the device. It’s pretty awesome. It’s a Windows tablet computer with Cantor’s custom software — pretty well designed considering this is a financial firm. You can bet on the winner, against the spread, or on one-off propositions like whether the offensive team in an NFL game will get a first down, or whether the current drive will end with a punt, touchdown, field goal, or turnover. The interface is pretty nice. You select the type of bet you want, see the current odds, and choose how much you want to bet from a menu of common options: $5, $10, $50, etc. You can’t bet during certain moments in the game, like right before and during a play in football. When I was there only one game was available for in-running betting. Still, it’s instantly gratifying and — I hate to use this word — addictive. Once my friend saw the device in action, he instantly said “I’m getting one of those”.

When I first heard of Cantor’s foray into sports betting, I assumed they would build “betfair indoors”, meaning an exchange that simply matches bettors with each other and takes no risk of its own. I was wrong. Cantor’s mechanism is pretty clearly an intelligent automated market maker that mixes prior knowledge and market forces, much like my own beloved Predictalot minus the combinatorial aspect. Together with their claim to welcome sharps, employing a market maker means that Cantor is taking a serious risk that no one will outperform their prior “too much”, but the end result is a highly usable and impressively fun application. Kudos to Cantor.


P.S. Cantor affectionately dubbed their oracle-like algorithm for computing their prior as “Midas”, proving this guy has a knack for thingnaming.

March Madness is upon us and Predictalot, the crazy game that I and others at Yahoo! Labs invented, is live again and taking your (virtual) bets. Filling out brackets is so 2009. On Predictalot, you can compose your own wild prediction, like there will be exactly seven upsets in the opening round, or neither Duke, Kentucky, Kansas, nor Pittsburgh will make the Final Four. You’ll want your laptop out and ready as you watch the games — you can buy and sell your predictions anytime, like stocks, as the on-court action moves for or against you.

Predictalot v0.3 is easier to play. We whittled down the ‘Make Prediction’ process from four steps to just two. Even if you don’t want to wager, with one click come check out the projected odds of nearly any crazy eventuality you can dream up.

Please connect to facebook and/or twitter to share your prediction prowess with your friends and followers. You’ll earn bonus points and my eternal gratitude.

The odds start off at our own prior estimate based on seeds and (new this year) the current scores of ongoing games, but ultimately settle to values set by “the crowd” — that means you — as predictions are bought and sold.

Yahoo! Labs Predictalot version 0.3 overview tab screenshot

For the math geeks, Predictalot is a combinatorial prediction market with over 9 quintillion outcomes. Prices are computed using an importance sampling approximation of a #P-hard problem.

What kind of information can we collect that a standard prediction market cannot? A standard market will say that Texas A&M is unlikely to win the tournament. Our market can say more. Yes, A&M is unlikely to reach the Final Four and even more unlikely to win apriori, but given that they somehow make it to the semifinals in Houston, less than a two hour drive from A&M’s campus, their relative odds may increase due to a home court advantage.

Here’s another advantage of the combinatorial setup. A standard bookmaker would never dare to offer the same millions of bets as Predictalot — they would face nearly unlimited possible losses because, by tradition, each bet is managed independently. By combining every bet into a single unified marketplace, we are able to limit the worst-case (virtual) loss of our market maker to a known fixed constant.

Abstracts are due today for the Third International Conference on Prediction and Information Markets. It will be held in Nottingham, England April 3-5 along with two related conferences: the International Conference on Gambling Studies and the International Conference on Money, Investment and Risk. (Abstracts also due today for both of these conferences.)

I’ve been considering submitting some thing(s): I’m curious if anyone else is planning to submit or attend?

Date: 3 – 5 April 2011
Event: Third International Conference on Prediction and Information Markets
Location: Nottingham Conference Centre
Organiser: Nottingham Business School

Details:

The Third International Conference on Prediction and Information Markets will be held in association with Economic Issues and the Journal of Prediction Markets.

Prediction / information markets offer a way of harnessing the wisdom of crowds. They have been used to aggregate information in order to provide forecasts of a wide range of events…

In recent years, a number of companies have employed these markets as a means of aggregating the information dispersed widely among their employees and customers…

Call for papers and presentations
Please send an abstract (maximum of 200 words) to Professor Leighton Vaughan Williams by email, by the closing date for receipt of abstracts of Monday 21 February 2011. Confirmation of receipt of abstracts will be sent within a maximum of five working days.

Yahoo! India Predictopus logo

I’m thrilled to report that Predictalot had an Indian makeover, launching as Predictopus* for the ICC Cricket World Cup. The Yahoo! India team did an incredible job, leveraging the idea and some of the code base of Predictalot, yet making it their own. Predictopus is not a YAP — it lives right on the Yahoo! Cricket website, the official homepage for the ICC Cricket World Cup. They’re also giving away Rs 10 lakhs — or about $22,000 if my calculations are correct — in prizes. Everything is bigger in India, including the crowds and the wisdom thereof. It will be great to see the game played out on a scale that dwarfs our college basketball silliness in the US.

The Y! India team reused some of the backend code but redid the frontend almost entirely. To adapt the game to cricket, among other chores, we had to modify our simulation code to estimate the starting probabilities that any team would win against any other team, even in the middle of a game. (How likely is it for India to come back at home from down 100 runs with 10 overs left and 5 wickets lost? About 25%, we think.) These starting probabilities are then refined further by the game-playing crowds.

It’s great to see an experiment from Labs grow into a full-fledged product run by a real product team in Yahoo!, a prime example of technology transfer at its best. In the meantime, we (Labs) are still gunning for a relaunch of Predictalot itself for March Madness 2011, the second year in a row. Stay tuned.

2011/02/24 Update: An eye-catching India-wide ad campaign for predictopus is live, including homepage, finance, movies, OMG, answers, mail, everywhere! Oh, and one of the prizes is a Hyundai.

predictopus ad on Yahoo! India homepage 2011/02/24


* Yes, that’s a reference to legendary Paul the Octopus, RIP.

mad scientist geek with test tube & lab coat

Gambling has been mocked as “a tax on the mathematically challenged”. Gamblers are stereotyped as losers in life. Casinos reinforce this by literally kicking out people who display too much intelligence. They ban card counting and people who simply win too much. They don’t allow computers or Internet connections in the sports book to block out information. They emphasize familiarity over innovation, cementing their appeal to habitual gamblers over geeks.

floating dice 2 and 5In the eyes of a casino, a sharp is indistinguishable from a cheat. More than boring, this seems fundamentally unfair and unsustainable, inviting disguise. It also turns off a wealthy, influential, and game-loving segment of the population.

What I want: A casino by geeks for geeks that celebrates innovation, encourages cleverness, welcomes gadgets and wifi, and fosters hacking, outwit, and outplay.

At least one casino has seen the light. The M Casino in Las Vegas is parterning with Cantor Fitzgerald to support in-game sports betting with few rules and caps, inviting sharps to, more or less, “bring it on”.

…gamblers can bet on the game even during play, accepting ever-changing point-spreads and odds. They can invest money on a Knicks foul shot going through the hoop or a Dodger getting to first base — contending with ever-evolving odds.

More critically, bettors can create hedges while jumping in and out of positions. But instead of buying into the fast-breaking moves of Microsoft, they’re betting on the Mariners’ impending fortunes.

This form of wagering is new to Las Vegas but old-hat in other markets.

unlike in most other casinos, laptop computers are welcome.

…”The M wants [sharp bettors] to be there,” believes [professional sports-bettor Steve] Fezzik. “They want your information, and that’s a progressive attitude.

Kudos to M for taking a chance on a more interesting future and to Cantor for making it happen.

What Cantor is debuting may not be a whole lot more than betfair indoors, but it’s a long overdue start. Here’s to hoping we see even more innovation, including smarter and more expressive markets.

It’s true.

More people are playing Predictalot today than Mafia Wars or Zynga Poker… On Yahoo!, that is.

In fact, Predictalot is the #1 game app on Yahoo! Apps by daily count. By monthly count, we are 5th and rising.

A prediction is being made about every three minutes.

Come join the fun.

predictalot most popular game app on yahoo 2010-06-12

I just left the 2010 ACM Conference on Electronic Commerce, where six (!) out of 45 papers were about prediction markets.

Yahoo! Lab’s own Predictalot market is now live and waiting for you to place almost any prediction your heart desires about the World Cup in South Africa.

Here are some terribly useful things you can learn this time around. All numbers are subject to change, and that’s kind of the point:

  • There’s a 37% chance Brazil and Spain will both make it to the final game; there’s only a 15% chance that neither of them will make it
  • There’s is a 1 in 25 chance Portugal will win the cup; 1 in 50 for Argentina
  • 42.92% chance that a country that has never won before will win
  • 19.07% chance that Australia will advance further than England
  • 65.71% chance that Denmark, Italy, Mexico and United States all will not advance to Semifinals
  • Follow Predictalot on twitter for more

If you think these odds are wrong, place your virtual wager and earn some intangible bragging rights. You can sell your prediction any time for points, even in the middle of a match, just like the stock market.

There are millions of predictions available, yet I really believe ours is the simplest prediction market interface to date. (Do you disagree, Leslie?) We have an excellent conversion rate, or percent of people who visit the site who go on to place at least one prediction — for March Madness, that rate was about 1 in 5. One of our main goals was to hide the underlying complexity and make the app fast, easy, and fun to use. I personally am thrilled with the result, but please go judge for yourself and tell us what you think.

In the first version of Predictalot, people went well beyond picking the obvious like who will win. For example, they created almost 4,000 “three-dimensional” predictions that compared one team against two others, like “Butler will advance further than Kentucky and Purdue”.

If you’re not sure what to predict, you can now check out the streaming updates of what other people are predicting in your social circle and around the world:

Predictalot recent activity screenshot 2010-06-11 18:45

Also new this time, you can join a group and challenge your friends. You can track how you stack up in each of your groups and across the globe. We now provide live match updates right within the app for your convenience.

If you have the Yahoo! Toolbar (if not, try the World Cup toolbar), you can play Predictalot directly from the toolbar without leaving the webpage you’re on, even if it’s Google. ;-)

playing predictalot from the yahoo! toolbar

Bringing Predictalot to life has been a truly interdisciplinary effort. On our team we have computer scientists and economists to work out the market math, and engineers to turn those equations into something real that is fast and easy to use. Predictalot is built on the Yahoo! Application Platform, an invaluable service (open to any developer) that makes it easy to make engaging and social apps for a huge audience with built-in distribution. And we owe a great deal to promotion from well-established Yahoo! properties like Fantasy Sports and Games.

We’re excited about this second iteration of Predictalot and hope you join us as the matches continue in South Africa. We invite everyone to join, though please do keep in mind that the game is in beta, or experimental, mode. (If you prefer a more polished experience, check out the official Yahoo! Fantasy Sports World Soccer game.) We hope it’s both fun to play and helps us learn something scientifically interesting.

Read more here, here, and here.

Or watch a screencast of how to play:

Has anyone heard of the following trick, which might be called housing arbitrage?

Buy one house at the beach and a second house near a ski resort. You live in the beach house in the winter and the ski resort in the summer. You rent out the beach house in the summer and the ski resort in the winter.* Can your earnings (rental revenue minus mortgage costs) be enough to live on?

Why it could work: the cost of each house will be roughly proportional to the average annual rental income in that location. If you didn’t live in the properties at all, you should roughly break even (income = mortgage payments). But you are living in each location during the time when rent is essentially free (not contributing to the average) so you have no housing costs. If you find good enough deals (or put money down, or have some small income like freelance writing, etc.) your income may exceed your mortgage enough to live on.

What’s the minimum you could get started with on this strategy? Probably a minimum income to live comfortably as a starting point would be $70K before taxes: see justification below. Assume you can make about 5% of a home’s value in rental income: this seems feasible. Then you need $1.4 million invested in real estate (say two $700K houses) with no mortgage (completely paid). Suppose you can also borrow at 5%. Then if you put 50% down on two $1.4 million properties ($2.8 million total), your effective mortgage rate is 2.5% and your “spread” is 2.5%, so you again earn $70K, but now you have two twice as nice houses (but more risk, need to qualify for loan, etc.). Now here is some magic. Suppose you find an incredible deal (say, in a down real estate market) and you can earn 10% in rental income. You can borrow at 5% and only want to put 20% down, still a respectable portion that the bank may be willing to go for. You buy two $600K homes ($1.2 million total) needing only $240K in cash. Now your rental revenue is $120K and your mortgage payments are $48K, so your net income is, viola, $72K!

Didn’t I forget about taxes and insurance? No, I’m just assuming these can be covered by your $70K income. I did forget about health insurance, though: that could threaten the strategy, at least in the United States. You can can hope that the new health care law helps, or keep an enjoyable day job, or purchase insurance out of the $70K.

You might say $70K pretax is not enough to live the lifestyle you want. But remember, you effectively have no housing costs, and this is just meant as a starting point. This is your “muse” as Tim Ferriss calls it: a steady reliable income that is your buffer. You still should pursue freelance ideas or business ideas that you are passionate about, and one of those just might hit it big. This just gives you freedom to pursue other ideas on your own. Hopefully even at $70K you can save some money to purchase additional properties and increase your income. Note that once your mortgage is paid off, your income will go up.

One nice thing about this strategy, and real estate investments in general, is that they are naturally inflation adjusted: rental rates should go up if inflation goes up.

This really only seems practical for people without kids in school. Although I suppose if your kids went to school in the beach location it might work. You’d only spend 2.5 months in the ski resort.

Certainly there are downsides: constantly moving, living in off-season tourist towns, living in properties that are rented half the year, dealing with renters, risk of loss or default, and managing the business headaches.

If housing arbitrage could really work, why aren’t more people doing it? Maybe it requires too much capital and maybe my math is wildly optimistic. Probably it’s no more than a fun mental exercise. I’m sure it’s been thought of. I can’t find it on a cursory web search but it seems hard to articulate to a search engine. If enough people started doing it, by definition house prices would go up to eliminate the arbitrage.

__________
* Maybe take a week or two in the summer at the beach and the winter at the ski house.

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