What government can learn from House of Cards

And it's not that Kevin Spacey could whip Congress into shape.

Alongside the legitimate excitement about how the Netflix-produced, online-only dramatic series House of Cards might change how we consume TV shows, there’s been a minor hubbub about the big data behind the streaming service’s original production.

In a November article, Wired detailed how Netflix mined its customers’ viewing habits to settle on the perfect and profitable recipe for House of Cards: political intrigue delivered with a mellifluous southern drawl, Kevin Spacey in the lead and David Fincher directing.

“We know what people watch on Netflix and we’re able with a high degree of confidence to understand how big a likely audience is for a given show based on people’s viewing habits,” Netflix told Wired. “We want to continue to have something for everybody. But as time goes on, we get better at selecting what that something for everybody is that gets high engagement.”

As insights from data mining goes, this isn’t much of a jaw dropper.

As a USA Network producer Stephen Hoostein pointed out to Wired, it doesn’t take a data genius to gamble that a plotline that proved popular in an earlier incarnation for the BBC might also play well in the U.S. or that an incredibly popular actor and director might increase the series’ chances of success.

“If they got Joe Blow off the street to do it and it was still successful, then essentially I would say, they found the idea that was so foolproof that anyone could have done it,” Hootstein said.

There’s also no guarantee  all those quality ingredients will gel. House of Cards has received generally good reviews except here in Washington where cookie cutter tales of political avarice have worn a little thin. (Note to producers: The sets for an upstart political website newsroom and a reporter’s apartment are both about three times too big).

So what can government learn from House of Cards -- other than that a devious, strong-willed majority whip may be just the thing to get Congress working again? One big lesson is that data, once it exists, can help turn the corner between an educated guess and an information-driven decision.

Government research agencies have increasingly focused on creating, gathering and organizing data to build platforms that non-government scientists can use to develop research and products in addition to doing their own research. GSA’s new media office has also been beating the drum on collecting analytics from agencies’ social media profiles so they can shift from giving citizens what officials think they want to giving them what data proves they want.

But a second lesson might be that good data can’t be the only ingredient. You also need good raw ingredients and smart analysts to give it value.