The UN is testing technology that processes data confidentially


The Economist: “Reasons of confidentiality mean that many medical, financial, educational and other personal records, from the analysis of which much public good could be derived, are in practice unavailable. A lot of commercial data are similarly sequestered. For example, firms have more granular and timely information on the economy than governments can obtain from surveys. But such intelligence would be useful to rivals. If companies could be certain it would remain secret, they might be more willing to make it available to officialdom.

A range of novel data-processing techniques might make such sharing possible. These so-called privacy-enhancing technologies (PETs) are still in the early stages of development. But they are about to get a boost from a project launched by the United Nations’ statistics division. The UN PETs Lab, which opened for business officially on January 25th, enables national statistics offices, academic researchers and companies to collaborate to carry out projects which will test various PETs, permitting technical and administrative hiccups to be identified and overcome.

The first such effort, which actually began last summer, before the PETs Lab’s formal inauguration, analysed import and export data from national statistical offices in America, Britain, Canada, Italy and the Netherlands, to look for anomalies. Those could be a result of fraud, of faulty record keeping or of innocuous re-exporting.

For the pilot scheme, the researchers used categories already in the public domain—in this case international trade in things such as wood pulp and clocks. They thus hoped to show that the system would work, before applying it to information where confidentiality matters.

They put several kinds of PETs through their paces. In one trial, OpenMined, a charity based in Oxford, tested a technique called secure multiparty computation (SMPC). This approach involves the data to be analysed being encrypted by their keeper and staying on the premises. The organisation running the analysis (in this case OpenMined) sends its algorithm to the keeper, who runs it on the encrypted data. That is mathematically complex, but possible. The findings are then sent back to the original inquirer…(More)”.

Data Sharing in Transport


Technical Note by the European Investment Board: “Traveller and transport related data are essential for planning efficient urban mobility and delivering an effective public transport services while adequately managing infrastructure investment costs. It also supports local authorities in their efforts towards decarbonisation of transport as well as improving air quality.

Nowadays, most of the data are generated by location-based mobile phone applications and connected vehicles or other mobility equipment like scooters and bikes. This opens up new opportunities in public sector engagement with private sector and partnerships.

This report, through an extensive literature review and interviews, identifies seven Data Partnership Models that could be used by public and private sector entities in the field of transport. It also provides a concise roadmap for local authorities as a guidance in their efforts when engaging with private sector in transport data sharing…(More)”.

Counting Crimes: An Obsolete Paradigm


Paul Wormeli at The Criminologist: “To the extent that a paradigm is defined as the way we view things, the crime statistics paradigm in the United States is inadequate and requires reinvention….The statement—”not all crime is reported to the police”—lies at the very heart of why our current crime data are inherently incomplete. It is a direct reference to the fact that not all “street crime” is reported and that state and local law enforcement are not the only entities responsible for overseeing violations of societally established norms (“street crime” or otherwise). Two significant gaps exist, in that: 1) official reporting of crime from state and local law enforcement agencies cannot provide insight into unreported incidents, and 2) state and local law enforcement may not have or acknowledge jurisdiction over certain types of matters, such as cybercrime, corruption, environmental crime, or terrorism, and therefore cannot or do not report on those incidents…

All of these gaps in crime reporting mask the portrait of crime in the U.S. If there was a complete accounting of crime that could serve as the basis of policy formulation, including the distribution of federal funds to state and local agencies, there could be a substantial impact across the nation. Such a calculation would move the country toward a more rational basis for determining federal support for communities based on a comprehensive measure of community wellness.

In its deliberations, the NAS Panel recognized that it is essential to consider both the concepts of classification and the rules of counting as we seek a better and more practical path to describing crime in the U.S. and its consequences. The panel postulated that a meaningful classification of incidents found to be crimes would go beyond the traditional emphasis on street crime and include all crime categories.

The NAS study identified the missing elements of a national crime report as including more complete data on crimes involving drugrelated offenses, criminal acts where juveniles are involved, so-called white-collar crimes such as fraud and corruption, cybercrime, crime against businesses, environmental crimes, and crimes against animals. Just as one example, it is highly unlikely that we will know the full extent of fraudulent claims against all federal, state, and local governments in the face of the massive influx of funding from recent and forthcoming Congressional action.

In proposing a set of crime classifications, the NAS panel recommended 11 major categories, 5 of which are not addressed in our current crime data collection systems. While there are parallel data systems that collect some of the missing data within these five crime categories, it remains unclear which federal agency, if any, has the authority to gather the information and aggregate it to give us anywhere near a complete estimate of crime in the United States. No federal or national entity has the assignment of estimating the total amount of crime that takes place in the United States. Without such leadership, we are left with an uninformed understanding of the health and wellness of communities throughout the country…(More)”

New and updated building footprints


Bing Blogs: “…The Microsoft Maps Team has been leveraging that investment to identify map features at scale and produce high-quality building footprint data sets with the overall goal to add to the OpenStreetMap and MissingMaps humanitarian efforts.

As of this post, the following locations are available and Microsoft offers access to this data under the Open Data Commons Open Database License (ODbL).

Country/RegionMillion buildings
United States of America129.6
Nigeria and Kenya50.5
South America44.5
Uganda and Tanzania17.9
Canada11.8
Australia11.3

As you might expect, the vintage of the footprints depends on the collection date of the underlying imagery. Bing Maps Imagery is a composite of multiple sources with different capture dates (ranging 2012 to 2021). To ensure we are setting the right expectation for that building, each footprint has a capture date tag associated if we could deduce the vintage of imagery used…(More)”

Data Re-Use and Collaboration for Development


Stefaan G. Verhulst at Data & Policy: “It is often pointed out that we live in an era of unprecedented data, and that data holds great promise for development. Yet equally often overlooked is the fact that, as in so many domains, there exist tremendous inequalities and asymmetries in where this data is generated, and how it is accessed. The gap that separates high-income from low-income countries is among the most important (or at least most persistent) of these asymmetries…

Data collaboratives are an emerging form of public-private partnership that, when designed responsibly, can offer a potentially innovative solution to this problem. Data collaboratives offer at least three key benefits for developing countries:

1. Cost Efficiencies: Data and data analytic capacity are often hugely expensive and beyond the limited capacities of many low-income countries. Data reuse, facilitated by data collaboratives, can bring down the cost of data initiatives for development projects.

2. Fresh insights for better policy: Combining data from various sources by breaking down silos has the potential to lead to new and innovative insights that can help policy makers make better decisions. Digital data can also be triangulated with existing, more traditional sources of information (e.g., census data) to generate new insights and help verify the accuracy of information.

3. Overcoming inequalities and asymmetries: Social and economic inequalities, both within and among countries, are often mapped onto data inequalities. Data collaboratives can help ease some of these inequalities and asymmetries, for example by allowing costs and analytical tools and techniques to be pooled. Cloud computing, which allows information and technical tools to be easily shared and accessed, are an important example. They can play a vital role in enabling the transfer of skills and technologies between low-income and high-income countries…(More)”. See also: Reusing data responsibly to achieve development goals (OECD Report).

Making data for good better


Article by Caroline Buckee, Satchit Balsari, and Andrew Schroeder: “…Despite the long standing excitement about the potential for digital tools, Big Data and AI to transform our lives, these innovations–with some exceptions–have so far had little impact on the greatest public health emergency of our time.

Attempts to use digital data streams to rapidly produce public health insights that were not only relevant for local contexts in cities and countries around the world, but also available to decision makers who needed them, exposed enormous gaps across the translational pipeline. The insights from novel data streams which could help drive precise, impactful health programs, and bring effective aid to communities, found limited use among public health and emergency response systems. We share here our experience from the COVID-19 Mobility Data Network (CMDN), now Crisis Ready (crisisready.io), a global collaboration of researchers, mostly infectious disease epidemiologists and data scientists, who served as trusted intermediaries between technology companies willing to share vast amounts of digital data, and policy makers, struggling to incorporate insights from these novel data streams into their decision making. Through our experience with the Network, and using human mobility data as an illustrative example, we recognize three sets of barriers to the successful application of large digital datasets for public good.

First, in the absence of pre-established working relationships with technology companies and data brokers, the data remain primarily confined within private circuits of ownership and control. During the pandemic, data sharing agreements between large technology companies and researchers were hastily cobbled together, often without the right kind of domain expertise in the mix. Second, the lack of standardization, interoperability and information on the uncertainty and biases associated with these data, necessitated complex analytical processing by highly specialized domain experts. And finally, local public health departments, understandably unfamiliar with these novel data streams, had neither the bandwidth nor the expertise to sift noise from signal. Ultimately, most efforts did not yield consistently useful information for decision making, particularly in low resource settings, where capacity limitations in the public sector are most acute…(More)”.

Trove of unique health data sets could help AI predict medical conditions earlier


Madhumita Murgia at the Financial Times: “…Ziad Obermeyer, a physician and machine learning scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, launched Nightingale Open Science last month — a treasure trove of unique medical data sets, each curated around an unsolved medical mystery that artificial intelligence could help to solve.

The data sets, released after the project received $2m of funding from former Google chief executive Eric Schmidt, could help to train computer algorithms to predict medical conditions earlier, triage better and save lives.

The data include 40 terabytes of medical imagery, such as X-rays, electrocardiogram waveforms and pathology specimens, from patients with a range of conditions, including high-risk breast cancer, sudden cardiac arrest, fractures and Covid-19. Each image is labelled with the patient’s medical outcomes, such as the stage of breast cancer and whether it resulted in death, or whether a Covid patient needed a ventilator.

Obermeyer has made the data sets free to use and mainly worked with hospitals in the US and Taiwan to build them over two years. He plans to expand this to Kenya and Lebanon in the coming months to reflect as much medical diversity as possible.

“Nothing exists like it,” said Obermeyer, who announced the new project in December alongside colleagues at NeurIPS, the global academic conference for artificial intelligence. “What sets this apart from anything available online is the data sets are labelled with the ‘ground truth’, which means with what really happened to a patient and not just a doctor’s opinion.”…

The Nightingale data sets were among dozens proposed this year at NeurIPS.

Other projects included a speech data set of Mandarin and eight subdialects recorded by 27,000 speakers in 34 cities in China; the largest audio data set of Covid respiratory sounds, such as breathing, coughing and voice recordings, from more than 36,000 participants to help screen for the disease; and a data set of satellite images covering the entire country of South Africa from 2006 to 2017, divided and labelled by neighbourhood, to study the social effects of spatial apartheid.

Elaine Nsoesie, a computational epidemiologist at the Boston University School of Public Health, said new types of data could also help with studying the spread of diseases in diverse locations, as people from different cultures react differently to illnesses.

She said her grandmother in Cameroon, for example, might think differently than Americans do about health. “If someone had an influenza-like illness in Cameroon, they may be looking for traditional, herbal treatments or home remedies, compared to drugs or different home remedies in the US.”

Computer scientists Serena Yeung and Joaquin Vanschoren, who proposed that research to build new data sets should be exchanged at NeurIPS, pointed out that the vast majority of the AI community still cannot find good data sets to evaluate their algorithms. This meant that AI researchers were still turning to data that were potentially “plagued with bias”, they said. “There are no good models without good data.”…(More)”.

Cities and the Climate-Data Gap


Article by Robert Muggah and Carlo Ratti: “With cities facing disastrous climate stresses and shocks in the coming years, one would think they would be rushing to implement mitigation and adaptation strategies. Yet most urban residents are only dimly aware of the risks, because their cities’ mayors, managers, and councils are not collecting or analyzing the right kinds of information.

With more governments adopting strategies to reduce greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions, cities everywhere need to get better at collecting and interpreting climate data. More than 11,000 cities have already signed up to a global covenant to tackle climate change and manage the transition to clean energy, and many aim to achieve net-zero emissions before their national counterparts do. Yet virtually all of them still lack the basic tools for measuring progress.

Closing this gap has become urgent, because climate change is already disrupting cities around the world. Cities on almost every continent are being ravaged by heat waves, fires, typhoons, and hurricanes. Coastal cities are being battered by severe flooding connected to sea-level rise. And some megacities and their sprawling peripheries are being reconsidered altogether, as in the case of Indonesia’s $34 billion plan to move its capital from Jakarta to Borneo by 2024.

Worse, while many subnational governments are setting ambitious new green targets, over 40% of cities (home to some 400 million people) still have no meaningful climate-preparedness strategy. And this share is even lower in Africa and Asia – where an estimated 90% of all future urbanization in the next three decades is expected to occur.

We know that climate-preparedness plans are closely correlated with investment in climate action including nature-based solutions and systematic resilience. But strategies alone are not enough. We also need to scale up data-driven monitoring platforms. Powered by satellites and sensors, these systems can track temperatures inside and outside buildings, alert city dwellers to air-quality issues, and provide high-resolution information on concentrations of specific GHGs (carbon dioxide and nitrogen dioxide) and particulate matter…(More)”.

‘In Situ’ Data Rights


Essay by Marshall W Van Alstyne, Georgios Petropoulos, Geoffrey Parker, and Bertin Martens: “…Data portability sounds good in theory—number portability improved telephony—but this theory has its flaws.

  • Context: The value of data depends on context. Removing data from that context removes value. A portability exercise by experts at the ProgrammableWeb succeeded in downloading basic Facebook data but failed on a re-upload.1 Individual posts shed the prompts that preceded them and the replies that followed them. After all, that data concerns others.
  • Stagnation: Without a flow of updates, a captured stock depreciates. Data must be refreshed to stay current, and potential users must see those data updates to stay informed.
  • Impotence: Facts removed from their place of residence become less actionable. We cannot use them to make a purchase when removed from their markets or reach a friend when they are removed from their social networks. Data must be reconnected to be reanimated.
  • Market Failure. Innovation is slowed. Consider how markets for business analytics and B2B services develop. Lacking complete context, third parties can only offer incomplete benchmarking and analysis. Platforms that do offer market overview services can charge monopoly prices because they have context that partners and competitors do not.
  • Moral Hazard: Proposed laws seek to give merchants data portability rights but these entail a problem that competition authorities have not anticipated. Regulators seek to help merchants “multihome,” to affiliate with more than one platform. Merchants can take their earned ratings from one platform to another and foster competition. But, when a merchant gains control over its ratings data, magically, low reviews can disappear! Consumers fraudulently edited their personal records under early U.K. open banking rules. With data editing capability, either side can increase fraud, surely not the goal of data portability.

Evidence suggests that following GDPR, E.U. ad effectiveness fell, E.U. Web revenues fell, investment in E.U. startups fell, the stock and flow of apps available in the E.U. fell, while Google and Facebook, who already had user data, gained rather than lost market share as small firms faced new hurdles the incumbents managed to avoid. To date, the results are far from regulators’ intentions.

We propose a new in situ data right for individuals and firms, and a new theory of benefits. Rather than take data from the platform, or ex situ as portability implies, let us grant users the right to use their data in the location where it resides. Bring the algorithms to the data instead of bringing the data to the algorithms. Users determine when and under what conditions third parties access their in situ data in exchange for new kinds of benefits. Users can revoke access at any time and third parties must respect that. This patches and repairs the portability problems…(More).”

Biases in human mobility data impact epidemic modeling


Paper by Frank Schlosser, Vedran Sekara, Dirk Brockmann, and Manuel Garcia-Herranz: “Large-scale human mobility data is a key resource in data-driven policy making and across many scientific fields. Most recently, mobility data was extensively used during the COVID-19 pandemic to study the effects of governmental policies and to inform epidemic models. Large-scale mobility is often measured using digital tools such as mobile phones. However, it remains an open question how truthfully these digital proxies represent the actual travel behavior of the general population. Here, we examine mobility datasets from multiple countries and identify two fundamentally different types of bias caused by unequal access to, and unequal usage of mobile phones. We introduce the concept of data generation bias, a previously overlooked type of bias, which is present when the amount of data that an individual produces influences their representation in the dataset. We find evidence for data generation bias in all examined datasets in that high-wealth individuals are overrepresented, with the richest 20% contributing over 50% of all recorded trips, substantially skewing the datasets. This inequality is consequential, as we find mobility patterns of different wealth groups to be structurally different, where the mobility networks of high-wealth users are denser and contain more long-range connections. To mitigate the skew, we present a framework to debias data and show how simple techniques can be used to increase representativeness. Using our approach we show how biases can severely impact outcomes of dynamic processes such as epidemic simulations, where biased data incorrectly estimates the severity and speed of disease transmission. Overall, we show that a failure to account for biases can have detrimental effects on the results of studies and urge researchers and practitioners to account for data-fairness in all future studies of human mobility…(More)”.