Today I’m super excited to go to the opening launch party of danah boyd’s Data and Society. Data and Society has a bunch of cool initiatives but I’m particularly interested in their Council for Big Data, Ethics, and Society. They were the people that helped make the Podesta Report on Big Data as good as it was. There will be a mini-conference this afternoon I’m looking forward to very much. Brilliant folks doing great work and talking to each other across disciplinary lines, can’t get enough of that stuff.
This coming Saturday I’ll be moderating a panel called Spotlight on Data-Driven Journalism: The job of a data journalist and the impact of computational reporting in the newsroom at the New York Press Club Conference on Journalism. The panelists are going to be great:
- John Keefe @jkeefe, Sr. editor, data news & J-technology, WNYC
- Maryanne Murray @lightnosugar, Global head of graphics, Reuters
- Zach Seward @zseward, Quartz
- Chris Walker @cpwalker07, Dir., data visualization, Mic News
The full program is available here.
In mid-December I’m on a panel myself at the Fairness, Accountability, and Transparency in Machine Learning Conference in Montreal. This conference seems to directly take up the call of the Podesta Report I mentioned above, and seeks to provide further research into the dangers of “encoding discrimination in automated decisions”. Amazing! So glad this is happening and that I get to be part of it. Here are some questions that will be taken up at this one-day conference (more information here):
- How can we achieve high classification accuracy while eliminating discriminatory biases? What are meaningful formal fairness properties?
- How can we design expressive yet easily interpretable classifiers?
- Can we ensure that a classifier remains accurate even if the statistical signal it relies on is exposed to public scrutiny?
- Are there practical methods to test existing classifiers for compliance with a policy?
If you think Ello is the newest safest social media platform, you might want to think again.
Or at the very least, go ahead and read this piece by my data journalist buddy Meredith Broussard, entitled ‘Ello, social media newcomer! Goodbye, data security fears?. Meredith has read the fine print in Ello’s security policy, and it’s not great news.
I’ve been writing my book, and I’m on chapter 4 right now, which is tentatively entitled Feedback Loops In Education. I’m studying the enormous changes in primary and secondary education that have occurred since the “data-driven” educational reform movement started with No Child Left Behind in 2001.
Here’s the issue I’m having writing this chapter. Things have really changed in the last 13 years, it’s really incredible how much money and politics – and not education – are involved. In fact I’m finding it difficult to write the chapter without sounding like a wingnut conspiracy theorist. Because that’s how freaking nuts things are right now.
On the one hand you have the people who believe in the promise of educational data. They are often pro-charter schools, anti-tenure, anti-union, pro-testing, and are possibly personally benefitting from collecting data about children and then sold to commercial interests. Privacy laws are things to bypass for these people, and the way they think about it is that they are going to improve education with all this amazing data they’re collecting. Because, you know, it’s big data, so it has to be awesome. They see No Child Left Behind and Race To The Top as business opportunities.
On the other hand you have people who do not believe in the promise of educational data. They believe in public education, and are maybe even teachers themselves. They see no proven benefits of testing, or data collection and privacy issues for students, and they often worry about job security, and public shaming and finger-pointing, and the long term consequences on children and teachers of this circus of profit-seeking “educational” reformers. Not to mention that none of this recent stuff is addressing the very real problems we have.
As it currently stands, I’m pretty much part of the second group. There just aren’t enough data skeptics in the first group to warrant my respect, and there’s way too much money and secrecy around testing and “value-added models.” And the politics of the anti-tenure case are ugly and I say that even though I don’t think teacher union leaders are doing themselves many favors.
But here’s the thing, it’s not like there could never be well-considered educational experiments that use data and have strict privacy measures in place, the results of which are not saved to individual records but are lessons learned for educators, and, it goes without saying, are strictly non-commercial. There is a place for testing, but not as a punitive measure but rather as a way of finding where there are problems and devoting resources to it. The current landscape, however, is so split and so acrimonious, it’s kind of impossible to imagine something reasonable happening.
It’s too bad, this stuff is important.
My friend Jan Zilinsky recently sent me this blogpost from the NeuroCritic which investigates the repercussions of having biomarkers held against individuals.
In this case, the biomarker was in the brain and indicated a propensity for taking financial risks. Or maybe it didn’t really – the case wasn’t closed – but that was the idea, and the people behind the research mentioned three times in 8 pages that policy makers might want to use already available brain scans to figure out which populations or individuals would be at risk. Here’s an excerpt from their paper:
Our finding suggests the existence of a simple biomarker for risk attitude, at least in the midlife [sic] population we examined in the northeastern United States. … If generalized to other groups, this finding will also imply that individual risk attitudes could, at least to some extent, be measured in many existing medical brain scans, potentially offering a tool for policy makers seeking to characterize the risk attitudes of populations.
The way the researchers did their tests was, as usual, to have them play artificial games of chance and see how different people strategized, and how their brains were different.
Studies like this are common and I don’t see a reason they won’t become even more common. The question is how we’re going to use them. Here’s a nasty way I could imagine they get used: when you apply for a job, you fill in a questionnaire that puts you into a category, and then people can see what biomarkers are typical for that category, and what the related health risks look like, and then they can decide whether to hire you. Not getting hired doesn’t say anything about your behaviors, just what happens with “people like you”.
I’m largely sidestepping the issue of accuracy. It’s quite likely that, at an individual level, many such predictions will be inaccurate but could still be used by commercial interests – and even be profitable – even so.
In the best case scenario, we would use such knowledge strictly to help people stay healthy. In the worst case, we have a system whereby people are judged by their biomarkers and not their behavior. If there were ever a case for regulation, I think this is it.
Here’s what I’ve spent the last couple of days doing: alternatively reading Christian Rudder’s new book Dataclysm and proofreading a report by AAPOR which discusses the benefits, dangers, and ethics of using big data, which is mostly “found” data originally meant for some other purpose, as a replacement for public surveys, with their carefully constructed data collection processes and informed consent. The AAPOR folk have asked me to provide tangible examples of the dangers of using big data to infer things about public opinion, and I am tempted to simply ask them all to read Dataclysm as exhibit A.
Rudder is a co-founder of OKCupid, an online dating site. His book mainly pertains to how people search for love and sex online, and how they represent themselves in their profiles.
Here’s something that I will mention for context into his data explorations: Rudder likes to crudely provoke, as he displayed when he wrote this recent post explaining how OKCupid experiments on users. He enjoys playing the part of the somewhat creepy detective, peering into what OKCupid users thought was a somewhat private place to prepare themselves for the dating world. It’s the online equivalent of a video camera in a changing booth at a department store, which he defended not-so-subtly on a recent NPR show called On The Media, and which was written up here.
I won’t dwell on that aspect of the story because I think it’s a good and timely conversation, and I’m glad the public is finally waking up to what I’ve known for years is going on. I’m actually happy Rudder is so nonchalant about it because there’s no pretense.
Even so, I’m less happy with his actual data work. Let me tell you why I say that with a few examples.
Who are OKCupid users?
I spent a lot of time with my students this summer saying that a standalone number wouldn’t be interesting, that you have to compare that number to some baseline that people can understand. So if I told you how many black kids have been stopped and frisked this year in NYC, I’d also need to tell you how many black kids live in NYC for you to get an idea of the scope of the issue. It’s a basic fact about data analysis and reporting.
When you’re dealing with populations on dating sites and you want to conclude things about the larger culture, the relevant “baseline comparison” is how well the members of the dating site represent the population as a whole. Rudder doesn’t do this. Instead he just says there are lots of OKCupid users for the first few chapters, and then later on after he’s made a few spectacularly broad statements, on page 104 he compares the users of OKCupid to the wider internet users, but not to the general population.
It’s an inappropriate baseline, made too late. Because I’m not sure about you but I don’t have a keen sense of the population of internet users. I’m pretty sure very young kids and old people are not well represented, but that’s about it. My students would have known to compare a population to the census. It needs to happen.
How do you collect your data?
Let me back up to the very beginning of the book, where Rudder startles us by showing us that the men that women rate “most attractive” are about their age whereas the women that men rate “most attractive” are consistently 20 years old, no matter how old the men are.
Actually, I am projecting. Rudder never actually specifically tells us what the rating is, how it’s exactly worded, and how the profiles are presented to the different groups. And that’s a problem, which he ignores completely until much later in the book when he mentions that how survey questions are worded can have a profound effect on how people respond, but his target is someone else’s survey, not his OKCupid environment.
Words matter, and they matter differently for men and women. So for example, if there were a button for “eye candy,” we might expect women to choose more young men. If my guess is correct, and the term in use is “most attractive”, then for men it might well trigger a sexual concept whereas for women it might trigger a different social construct; indeed I would assume it does.
Since this isn’t a porn site, it’s a dating site, we are not filtering for purely visual appeal; we are looking for relationships. We are thinking beyond what turns us on physically and asking ourselves, who would we want to spend time with? Who would our family like us to be with? Who would make us be attractive to ourselves? Those are different questions and provoke different answers. And they are culturally interesting questions, which Rudder never explores. A lost opportunity.
Next, how does the recommendation engine work? I can well imagine that, once you’ve rated Profile A high, there is an algorithm that finds Profile B such that “people who liked Profile A also liked Profile B”. If so, then there’s yet another reason to worry that such results as Rudder described are produced in part as a result of the feedback loop engendered by the recommendation engine. But he doesn’t explain how his data is collected, how it is prompted, or the exact words that are used.
Here’s a clue that Rudder is confused by his own facile interpretations: men and women both state that they are looking for relationships with people around their own age or slightly younger, and that they end up messaging people slightly younger than they are but not many many years younger. So forty year old men do not message twenty year old women.
Is this sad sexual frustration? Is this, in Rudder’s words, the difference between what they claim they want and what they really want behind closed doors? Not at all. This is more likely the difference between how we live our fantasies and how we actually realistically see our future.
Need to control for population
Here’s another frustrating bit from the book: Rudder talks about how hard it is for older people to get a date but he doesn’t correct for population. And since he never tells us how many OKCupid users are older, nor does he compare his users to the census, I cannot infer this.
Here’s a graph from Rudder’s book showing the age of men who respond to women’s profiles of various ages:
We’re meant to be impressed with Rudder’s line, “for every 100 men interested in that twenty year old, there are only 9 looking for someone thirty years older.” But here’s the thing, maybe there are 20 times as many 20-year-olds as there are 50-year-olds on the site? In which case, yay for the 50-year-old chicks? After all, those histograms look pretty healthy in shape, and they might be differently sized because the population size itself is drastically different for different ages.
One of the worst examples of statistical mistakes is his experiment in turning off pictures. Rudder ignores the concept of confounders altogether, which he again miraculously is aware of in the next chapter on race.
To be more precise, Rudder talks about the experiment when OKCupid turned off pictures. Most people went away when this happened but certain people did not:
Some of the people who stayed on went on a “blind date.” Those people, which Rudder called the “intrepid few,” had a good time with people no matter how unattractive they were deemed to be based on OKCupid’s system of attractiveness. His conclusion: people are preselecting for attractiveness, which is actually unimportant to them.
But here’s the thing, that’s only true for people who were willing to go on blind dates. What he’s done is select for people who are not superficial about looks, and then collect data that suggests they are not superficial about looks. That doesn’t mean that OKCupid users as a whole are not superficial about looks. The ones that are just got the hell out when the pictures went dark.
This brings me to the most interesting part of the book, where Rudder explores race. Again, it ends up being too blunt by far.
Here’s the thing. Race is a big deal in this country, and racism is a heavy criticism to be firing at people, so you need to be careful, and that’s a good thing, because it’s important. The way Rudder throws it around is careless, and he risks rendering the term meaningless by not having a careful discussion. The frustrating part is that I think he actually has the data to have a very good discussion, but he just doesn’t make the case the way it’s written.
Rudder pulls together stats on how men of all races rate women of all races on an attractiveness scale of 1-5. It shows that non-black men find their own race attractive and non-black men find black women, in general, less attractive. Interesting, especially when you immediately follow that up with similar stats from other U.S. dating sites and – most importantly – with the fact that outside the U.S., we do not see this pattern. Unfortunately that crucial fact is buried at the end of the chapter, and instead we get this embarrassing quote right after the opening stats:
And an unintentionally hilarious 84 percent of users answered this match question:
Would you consider dating someone who has vocalized a strong negative bias toward a certain race of people?
in the absolute negative (choosing “No” over “Yes” and “It depends”). In light of the previous data, that means 84 percent of people on OKCupid would not consider dating someone on OKCupid.
Here Rudder just completely loses me. Am I “vocalizing” a strong negative bias towards black women if I am a white man who finds white women and asian women hot?
Especially if you consider that, as consumers of social platforms and sites like OKCupid, we are trained to rank all the products we come across to ultimately get better offerings, it is a step too far for the detective on the other side of the camera to turn around and point fingers at us for doing what we’re told. Indeed, this sentence plunges Rudder’s narrative deeply into the creepy and provocative territory, and he never fully returns, nor does he seem to want to. Rudder seems to confuse provocation for thoughtfulness.
This is, again, a shame. A careful conversation about the issues of what we are attracted to, what we can imagine doing, and how we might imagine that will look to our wider audience, and how our culture informs those imaginings, are all in play here, and could have been drawn out in a non-accusatory and much more useful way.
The Columbia J-School program that I have been directing, The Lede Program in Data Journalism, has wound down this past week and in four days my 6-month contract with Columbia will end. I’ve had a fantastic time and I am super proud of what we accomplished this past summer. The students from the program are awesome and many of them are now my friends. About half of them are still engaged in classes and will continue to work this semester with Jonathan Soma, who absolutely rocks, and of course my fabulous colleague Theresa Bradley, who will step in as Director now that I’m leaving.
So, what’s next? I am happy to say that as of today (or at least as of next Monday when my kids are really in school full-time) I’m writing my book Weapons of Math Destruction on a full-time basis. This comes as a huge relief, since the internal pressure I have to finish this book is reminiscent of how I felt when I needed to write my thesis: enormous, but maybe even worse than then since the timeliness of the book could not be overstated, and I want to get this book out before the moment passes.
In the meantime I have some cool talks I’m planning to go to (like this one I went to already!) and some I’m planning to give. So for example, I’m giving a keynote at The Yale Day of Data later this month, which is going to be fun and interesting.
My Yale talk is basically a meditation on what can be achieved by academic data science institutions, what presents cultural and technical obstacles to collaboration, and why we need to do it anyway. It’s no less than a plea for Yale to create a data science institute with a broad definition of data science – so including scholars from law and from journalism as well as the fields you think of already when you think of data science – and a broad mandate to have urgent conversations across disciplines about the “big data revolution.” That conversation has already begun at the Information Society Project at Yale Law School, which makes me optimistic.
I also plan to continue my weekly Slate Money podcasts with Felix Salmon and Jordan Weissmann. Today we’re discussing the economic implications of Scottish independence, Felix’s lifetime earnings calculator, and the Fed’s new liquidity rules and how they affect municipalities, which my friend Marc Joffe guest blogged about yesterday.
For a while now I’ve been thinking I should build a decision tree for deciding which algorithm to use on a given data project. And yes, I think it’s kind of cool that “decision tree” would be an outcome on my decision tree. Kind of like a nerd pun.
I’m happy to say that I finally started work on my algorithm decision tree, thanks to this website called gliffy.com which allows me to build flowcharts with an easy online tool. It was one of those moments when I said to myself, this morning at 6am, “there should be a start-up that allows me to build a flowchart online! Let me google for that” and it totally worked. I almost feel like I willed gliffy.com into existence.
So here’s how far I’ve gotten this morning:
I looked around the web to see if I’m doing something that’s already been done and I came up with this:
I appreciate the effort but this is way more focused on the size of the data than I intend to be, at least for now. And here’s another one that’s even less like the one I want to build but is still impressive.
Because here’s what I want to focus on: what kind of question are you answering with which algorithm? For example, with clustering algorithms you are, you know, grouping similar things together. That one’s easy, kind of, although plenty of projects have ended up being clustering or classifying algorithms whose motivating questions did not originally take on the form “how would we group these things together?”.
In other words, the process of getting at algorithms from questions is somewhat orthogonal to the normal way algorithms are introduced, and for that reason taking me some time to decide what the questions are that I need to ask in my decision tree. Right about now I’m wishing I had taken notes when my Lede Program students asked me to help them with their projects, because embedded in those questions were some great examples of data questions in search of an algorithm.
Please give me advice!