Your Data Footprint Is Affecting Your Life In Ways You Can’t Even Imagine

Jessica Leber at Fast Co-Exist: “Cities have long seen the potential in big data to improve the government and the lives of citizens, and this is now being put into action in ways where governments touch citizens’ lives in very sensitive areas. New York City’s Department of Homelessness Services is mining apartment eviction filings, to see if they can understand who is at risk of becoming homeless and intervene early. And police departments all over the country have adopted predictive policing software that guides where officers should deploy, and at what time, leading to reduced crime in some cities.

In one study in Los Angeles, police officers deployed to certain neighborhoods by predictive policing software prevented 4.3 crimes per week, compared to 2 crimes per week when assigned to patrol a specific area by human crime analysts. Surely, a reduction in crime is a good thing. But community activists in places such as Bellingham, Washington, have grave doubts. They worry that outsiders can’t examine how the algorithms work, since the software is usually proprietary, and so citizens have no way of knowing what data the government is using to target them. They also worry that predictive policing is just exacerbating existing patterns of racial profiling. If the underlying crime data being used is the result of years of over-policing minority communities for minor offenses, then the predictions based on this biased data could create a feedback loop and lead to yet more over-policing.

At a smaller and more limited scale is the even more sensitive area of child protection services. Though the data isn’t really as “big” as in other examples, a few agencies are carefully exploring using statistical models to make decisions in several areas, such as which children in the system are most in danger of violence, which children are most in need of a trauma screening, and which are at risk of entering the criminal justice system. 

In Hillsborough County, Florida, where a series of child homicides occurred, a private provider selected to manage the county’s child welfare system in 2012 came in and analyzed the data. Cases with the highest probability of serious injury or death had a few factors in common, they found: a child under the age of three, a “paramour” in the home, a substance abuse or domestic violence history, and a parent previously in the foster care system. They identified nine practices to use in these cases and hired a software provider to create a dashboard that allowed real-time feedback and dashboards. Their success has led to the program being implemented statewide….

“I think the opportunity is a rich one. At the same time, the ethical considerations need to be guiding us,” says Jesse Russell, chief program officer at the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, who has followed the use of predictive analytics in child protective services. Officials, he says, are treading carefully before using data to make decisions about individuals, especially when the consequences of being wrong—such as taking a child out of his or her home unnecessarily—are huge. And while caseworker decision-making can be flawed or biased, so can the programs that humans design. When you rely too much on data—if the data is flawed or incomplete, as could be the case in predictive policing—you risk further validating bad decisions or existing biases….

On the other hand, big data does have the potential to vastly expand our understanding of who we are and why we do what we do. A decade ago, serious scientists would have laughed someone out of the room who proposed a study of “the human condition.” It is a topic so broad and lacking in measurability. But perhaps the most important manifestation of big data in people’s lives could come from the ability for scientists to study huge, unwieldy questions they couldn’t before.

A massive scientific undertaking to study the human condition is set to launch in January of 2017. The Kavli Human Project, funded by the Kavli Foundation, plans to recruit 10,000 New Yorkers from all walks of life to be measured for 10 years. And by measured, they mean everything: all financial transactions, tax returns, GPS coordinates, genomes, chemical exposure, IQ, bluetooth sensors around the house, who subjects text and call—and that’s just the beginning. In all, the large team of academics expect to collect about a billion data points per person per year at an unprecedented low cost for each data point compared to other large research surveys.

The hope is with so much continuous data, researchers can for the first time start to disentangle the complex, seemingly unanswerable questions that have plagued our society, from what is causing the obesity epidemic to how to disrupt the poverty to prison cycle….(More)