Susan Athey’s pioneering work as a “tech economist” has helped industry and academia alike better understand the constantly shifting digital era. BA in economics, computer science and math, Duke University
PhD in economics, Stanford GSB Athey, a professor of economics at Stanford Graduate School of Business, seeks to understand the impact of marketplaces and digital platforms on the economy, touching disparate fields such as timber auctions, virtual currencies, the news media, and online advertising.

By marrying machine-learning techniques with statistical tools to analyze large and novel data sets, she helps answer thorny questions about cause and effect. “There are so many opportunities around digitization,” Athey says.

“The digital transformation of the economy is going to lead to an explosion of new data and the ability to intervene in the environment, run experiments, and learn iteratively.” Athey recently spoke with Stanford Business about her experiences at the intersection of academia and industry, what motivates her as a researcher, and what it’s like to help chart a new career path for a fresh generation of economists. Athey was initially attracted to economics by the ability to use rigorous theoretical and empirical analysis to answer policy questions.

“Economics — and in particular, designing marketplaces like search, ride-sharing, and vacation rentals — is an area that allows you to approach important issues that have a lot of impact on people, in settings where answers and mechanisms are often quite subtle,” she says. “So there’s tremendous value in having a good conceptual framework.” Athey’s wide-ranging work extends that theme into other contexts.

Her work regarding the news industry studied how online aggregators and intermediaries — like Google News and social media — redistribute reader attention away from large news purveyors and toward smaller outlets. “That can have a pretty big effect in the long run in terms of what kinds of news gets created, and how investments are made,” Athey says. Read more from…

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