ENTRIES TAGGED "crime data"

Strata Week: Data brokers know more about us than we know

Data brokers, workplace sensor studies, unreported drug side effects revealed in search data, and the dark side of big data.

The lowdown on data brokers, and the use of sensor data in the workplace

ProPublica’s Lois Beckett takes a look this week at data brokers. She says that though Congress is making moves to make such companies give consumers more control over their data and what happens to it, many people not only don’t know these data brokers exist, but they also don’t know the extent of the data gathered and how it’s used.

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Strata Week: The data divide is growing

Is data collection entering discriminatory territory? Also, big data's role in crime fighting and its debut in the NBA.

Data mining opens new doors for discrimination, marginalization

In a post at Scientific American, Michael Fertik took a look at how Internet data collection practices are beginning to create an unequal — even discriminatory — online environment. Fertik writes:

“For most of the Internet’s short history, the primary goal of this data collection was classic product marketing: for example, advertisers might want to show me Nikes and my wife Manolo Blahniks. But increasingly, data collection is leapfrogging well beyond strict advertising and enabling insurance, medical and other companies to benefit from analyzing your personal, highly detailed ‘Big Data’ record without your knowledge. Based on this analysis, these companies then make decisions about you — including whether you are even worth marketing to at all.”

The consequences of such detailed data mining run deep. Fertik notes that advances in online data mining are enabling companies to “skirt the spirit of the law” and make discriminatory choices in who receives credit or loan offers, for example, by simply not displaying online offers to less credit-attractive users. “If you live on the wrong side of the digital tracks,” he says, “you won’t even see a credit offer from leading lending institutions, and you won’t realize that loans are available to help you with your current personal or professional priorities.”

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A grisly job for data scientists

Matching the missing to the dead involves reconciling two national databases.

Missing Person: Ai Weiwei by Daquella manera, on FlickrJavier Reveron went missing from Ohio in 2004. His wallet turned up in New York City, but he was nowhere to be found. By the time his parents arrived to search for him and hand out fliers, his remains had already been buried in an unmarked indigent grave. In New York, where coroner’s resources are precious, remains wait a few months to be claimed before they’re buried by convicts in a potter’s field on uninhabited Hart Island, just off the Bronx in Long Island Sound.

The story, reported by the New York Times last week, has as happy an ending as it could given that beginning. In 2010 Reveron’s parents added him to a national database of missing persons. A month later police in New York matched him to an unidentified body and his remains were disinterred, cremated and given burial ceremonies in Ohio.

Reveron’s ordeal suggests an intriguing, and impactful, machine-learning problem. The Department of Justice maintains separate national, public databases for missing people, unidentified people and unclaimed people. Many records are full of rich data that is almost never a perfect match to data in other databases — hair color entered by a police department might differ from how it’s remembered by a missing person’s family; weights fluctuate; scars appear. Photos are provided for many missing people and some unidentified people, and matching them is difficult. Free-text fields in many entries describe the circumstances under which missing people lived and died; a predilection for hitchhiking could be linked to a death by the side of a road.

I’ve called the Department of Justice (DOJ) to ask about the extent to which they’ve worked with computer scientists to match missing and unidentified people, and will update when I hear back. One thing that’s not immediately apparent is the public availability of the necessary training set — cases that have been successfully matched and removed from the lists. The DOJ apparently doesn’t comment on resolved cases, which could make getting this data difficult. But perhaps there’s room for a coalition to request the anonymized data and manage it to the DOJ’s satisfaction while distributing it to capable data scientists.

Photo: Missing Person: Ai Weiwei by Daquella manera, on Flickr

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