What is the Pareto principle and what does it mean for summarisation?

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The Pareto principle is a distributive theory of consequence holding that around 80% of outcomes result from 20% of causes. It is also called the 80/20 rule, or the law of vital few. It has been found that many natural phenomena exhibit the principle, for example, the distribution of global income: it is a fact that the wealthiest 20% of the global population generates 82.7% of the world's income. The Pareto principle was named after Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, who whilst at university in 1896 found that 80% of Italy's land was owned by 20% of its population.

Another common finding is that in computer science, 20% of a code contains 80% of the total errors. Furthermore, when producing software, writing 80% of the code takes up 20% of the production time; conversely, the hardest 20% of the code takes up 80% of the production time. An example of the Pareto principle's utility is its application in health and safety: by assuming that 20% of hazards account for 80% of accidents in a given occupation, as tends to be the case, health and safety professionals can prioritise prevention of the most consequential hazards in the workplace.

It is a quite fascinating concept that seems to pop up eerily frequently: 20% of criminals commit 80% of crimes; 80% of online search visits involve 20% of keywords; 80% of a company's sales come from 20% of their products... there appears to be some universality when it comes to the principle.

Although, strictly speaking, the principle only applies with exactness to statistics derived from events independent of each other. And since very few events occur in a vacuum, without influence or dependence on another event, the principle's true worth lies in its conceptual value. But it serves as a handy reminder of the often-skewed relationship between input and output, and offers a useful way of looking at which actions you might wish to take to achieve the best results.

The Pareto principle and work efficiency

One notable manifestation of the principle is observed when producing an assignment for school or work: it is often the case that only 20% of the information in each source is synthesised to make up 80% of the newly produced document. It might also be the case that you spend 20% of your time writing 80% of the assignment, whereas the most challenging 20% takes the most minutes.

This distribution emphasises the importance of identifying and locating key information quickly: to get maximum output from your input. Time efficiency is a skill that's becoming more valuable as well as necessary, as technology accelerates our ability to produce work. 

One such piece of tech is genei's summariser: using an AI-powered algorithm capable of processing over 2000 words per second, our tool is built for turning the input-output distribution in your favour, by helping you get what you need without wading through the excess waffle in academic papers. Our semantic search feature allows you to take control and find results from questions you want the answers to, within and across documents, given to you in concise note form.

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By Max Barnett.

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