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How The Ensemble squeaked by to win the Netflix Prize

netflix prizeSusie Murphy was a relative latecomer to The Ensemble — a group of several dozen people who came together to compete for the Netflix Prize — but she was there in the very end, when in the final hours the team shot ahead to claim the prize from the clutches of BellKor’s Pragmatic Chaos, the team that had been the first to surmount the 10% mark.

The team, she explained, had come together hapahardardly, with two other teams joining while pulling in other stragglers along the way. Many of the members were plucked from the Netflix forums, chosen not always solely for their skill but also likability. They put together something Murphy called a “probe exchange” that allowed them to easily upload and collaborate on files they were creating.

“They just started working together, basically as a community,” she explained. “And as each person joined into the probe exchange, they would bring their contacts, and then eventually the other people formed teams, and those teams joined the Ensemble, and it became kind of a big group. Last time I counted there were 34 guys, just from all over the world.”

To create order within such a spread-out group, they used internal polling tools to vote on important decisions and what strategies would be implemented. As the deadline quickly approached, the numbers of emails and files being uploaded increased dramatically; the group had become an adrenaline-fueled hive.

“I think probably right at the very end there, there was a sense that the 10.10 results were going to be very very good,” she said. “At one point someone lost a file on the server, and everyone had to go look for it. It was just — I saw it characterized as a nail biter — but it was so much more exciting than that.”

I asked Murphy what it was like for the team now that they had won. Would they simply just go about their business?

“It seems like it’s kind of falling into two categories,” she replied. “Some have said, ‘well, that was a lot of fun, but I have to go back to myjob or working on my PhD thesis now.’ The second half kind of wants to continue the experience. They want to continue to work with the people in The Ensemble, or do something with recommender systems, but in a more formal capacity.”

For now, many are simply enjoying the mini-celebrity status that has suddenly found them. For whatever reason, the Netflix Prize managed to elicit feature stories in the New York Times Magazine and Wired, along with hundreds of other press stories and blog posts. With the contest finally won, the attention and praise has been enormous. But what kept the contestants going since 2006, when the contest was first launched?

For most of The Ensemble, it boiled down to the simple fact that some people just love a good puzzle.

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Netflix Prize finally declares winner

And apparently the winners won by a hair:The Netflix Prize Comes To A Buzzer-Beater, Nailbiting Finish

Who knew statistical computing competitions could be so cut throat? Since we reported on the contest last night, two teams in the Netflix Prize have spent the last few hours jumping back and forth on the Netflix leaderboard as the three-year-long competition ticked into its final moments, with last minute sniping submissions coming from both sides. Finally, the results are in: The Ensemble has managed to come from behind to upset BellKor’s Pragmatic Chaos with a top submission of 10.10% — an improvement of .01% — only 4 minutes before the contest closed.

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