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De-anonymizing what used to be anonymous: NYC taxicabs

Thanks to Artem Kaznatcheev, I learned yesterday about the recent work of Anthony Tockar in exploring the field of anonymization and deanonymization of datasets.

Specifically, he looked at the 2013 cab rides in New York City, which was provided under a FOIL request, and he stalked celebrities Bradley Cooper and Jessica Alba (and discovered that neither of them tipped the cabby). He also stalked a man who went to a slew of NYC titty bars: found out where the guy lived and even got a picture of him.

Previously, some other civic hackers had identified the cabbies themselves, because the original dataset had scrambled the medallions, but not very well.

The point he was trying to make was that we should not assume that “anonymized” datasets actually protect privacy. Instead we should learn how to use more thoughtful approaches to anonymizing stuff, and he proposes a method called “differential privacy,” which he explains here. It involves adding noise to the data, in a certain way, so that at the end any given person doesn’t risk too much of their own privacy by being included in the dataset versus being not included in the dataset.

Bottomline, it’s actually pretty involved mathematically, and although I’m a nerd and it doesn’t intimidate me, it does give me pause. Here are a few concerns:

  1. It means that most people, for example the person in charge of fulfilling FOIL requests, will not actually understand the algorithm.
  2. That means that, if there’s a requirement that such a procedure is used, that person will have to use and trust a third party to implement it. This leads to all sorts of problems in itself.
  3. Just to name one, depending on what kind of data it is, you have to implement differential privacy differently. There’s no doubt that a complicated mapping of datatype to methodology will be screwed up when the person doing it doesn’t understand the nuances.
  4. Here’s another: the third party may not be trustworthy and may have created a backdoor.
  5. Or they just might get it wrong, or do something lazy that doesn’t actually work, and they can get away with it because, again, the user is not an expert and cannot accurately evaluate their work.

Altogether I’m imagining that this is at best an expensive solution for very important datasets, and won’t be used for your everyday FOIL requests like taxicab rides unless the culture around privacy changes dramatically.

Even so, super interesting and important work by Anthony Tockar. Also, if you think that’s cool, take a look at my friend Luis Daniel‘s work on de-anonymizing the Stop & Frisk data.

People hate me, I must be doing something right

September 30, 2014 32 comments

Not sure if you’ve seen this recent New York Times article entitled Learning to Love Criticism, but go ahead and read it if you haven’t. The key figures:

…76 percent of the negative feedback given to women included some kind of personality criticism, such as comments that the woman was “abrasive,” “judgmental” or “strident.” Only 2 percent of men’s critical reviews included negative personality comments.

This is so true! I re-re-learned this recently (again) when I started podcasting on Slate and the iTunes reviews of the show included attacks on me personally. For example: “Felix is great but Cathy is just annoying… and is not very interesting on anything” as well as “The only problem seems to be Cathy O’Neill who doesn’t have anything to contribute to the conversation…”

By contrast the men on the show, Jordan and Felix, are never personally attacked, although Felix is sometimes criticized for interrupting people, mostly me. In other words, I have some fans too. I am divisive.

So, what’s going on here?

Well, I have a thick skin already, partly from blogging and partly from being in men’s fields all my life, and partly just because I’m an alpha female. So what that means is that I know that it’s not really about me when people anonymously complain that I’m annoying or dumb. To be honest, when I see something like that, which isn’t a specific criticism that might help me get better but is rather a vague attack on my character, I immediately discount it as sexism if not misogyny, and I feel pity for the women in that guy’s life. Sometimes I also feel pity for the guy too, because he’s stunted and that’s sad.

But there’s one other thing I conclude when I piss people off: that I’m getting under their skin, which means what I’m saying is getting out there, to a wider audience than just people who already agree with me, and if that guy hates me then maybe 100 other people are listening and not quite hating me. They might even be agreeing with me. They might even be changing their minds about some things because of my arguments.

So, I realize this sounds twisted, but when people hate me, I feel like I must be doing something right.

One other thing I’ll say, which the article brings up. It is a luxury indeed to be a woman who can afford to be hated. I am not at risk, or at least I don’t feel at all at risk, when other people hate me. They are entitled to hate me, and I don’t need to bother myself about getting them to like me. It’s a deep and wonderful fact about our civilization that I can say that, and I am very glad to be living here and now, where I can be a provocative and opinionated intellectual woman.

Fuck yes! Let’s do this, people! Let’s have ideas and argue about them and disagree! It’s what freedom is all about.

Categories: musing, statistics

Women not represented in clinical trials

September 26, 2014 13 comments

This recent NYTimes article entitled Health Researchers Will Get $10.1 Million to Counter Gender Bias in Studies spelled out a huge problem that kind of blows me away as a statistician (and as a woman!).

Namely, they have recently decided over at the NIH, which funds medical research in this country, that we should probably check to see how women’s health are affected by drugs, and not just men’s. They’ve decided to give “extra money” to study this special group, namely females.

Here’s the bizarre and telling explanation for why most studies have focused on men and excluded women:

Traditionally many investigators have worked only with male lab animals, concerned that the hormonal cycles of female animals would add variability and skew study results.

Let’s break down that explanation, which I’ve confirmed with a medical researcher is consistent with the culture.

If you are afraid that women’s data would “skew study results,” that means you think the “true result” is the result that works for men. Because adding women’s data would add noise to the true signal, that of the men’s data. What?! It’s an outrageous perspective. Let’s take another look at this reasoning, from the article:

Scientists often prefer single-sex studies because “it reduces variability, and makes it easier to detect the effect that you’re studying,” said Abraham A. Palmer, an associate professor of human genetics at the University of Chicago. “The downside is that if there is a difference between male and female, they’re not going to know about it.”

Ummm… yeah. So instead of testing the effect on women, we just go ahead and optimize stuff for men and let women just go ahead and suffer the side effects of the treatment we didn’t bother to study. After all, women only comprise 50.8% of the population, they won’t mind.

This is even true for migraines, where 2/3rds of migraine sufferers are women.

One reason they like to exclude women: they have periods, and they even sometimes get pregnant, which is confusing for people who like to have clean statistics (on men’s health). In fact my research contact says that traditionally, this bias towards men in clinical trials was said to protect women because they “could get pregnant” and then they’d be in a clinical trial while pregnant. OK.

I’d like to hear more about who is and who isn’t in clinical trials, and why.

Categories: modeling, news, rant, statistics

The business of public education

September 25, 2014 25 comments

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.

Christian Rudder’s Dataclysm

September 16, 2014 16 comments

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:

dataclysm

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.

Confounding

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:

new-conversations

 

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.

Race

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.

Student evaluations: very noisy data

I’ve been sent this recent New York Times article by a few people (thanks!). It’s called Grading Teachers, With Data From Class, and it’s about how standardized tests are showing themselves to be inadequate to evaluate teachers, so a Silicon Valley-backed education startup called Panorama is stepping into the mix with a data collection process focused on student evaluations.

Putting aside for now how much this is a play for collecting information about the students themselves, I have a few words to say about the signal which one gets from student evaluations. It’s noisy.

So, for example, I was a calculus teacher at Barnard, teaching students from all over the Columbia University community (so, not just women). I taught the same class two semesters in a row: first in Fall, then in Spring.

Here’s something I noticed. The students in the Fall were young (mostly first semester frosh), eager, smart, and hard-working. They loved me and gave me high marks on all categories, except of course for the few students who just hated math, who would typically give themselves away by saying “I hate math and this class is no different.”

The students in the Spring were older, less eager, probably just as smart, but less hard-working. They didn’t like me or the class. In particular, they didn’t like how I expected them to work hard and challenge themselves. The evaluations came back consistently less excited, with many more people who hated math.

I figured out that many of the students had avoided this class and were taking it for a requirement, didn’t want to be there, and it showed. And the result was that, although my teaching didn’t change remarkably between the two semesters, my evaluations changed considerably.

Was there some way I could have gotten better evaluations from that second group? Absolutely. I could have made the class easier. That class wanted calculus to be cookie-cutter, and didn’t particularly care about the underlying concepts and didn’t want to challenge themselves. The first class, by contrast, had loved those things.

My conclusion is that, once we add “get good student evaluations” to the mix of requirements for our country’s teachers, we are asking for them to conform to their students’ wishes, which aren’t always good. Many of the students in this country don’t like doing homework (in fact most!). Only some of them like to be challenged to think outside their comfort zone. We think teachers should do those things, but by asking them to get good student evaluations we might be preventing them from doing those things. A bad feedback loop would result.

I’m not saying teachers shouldn’t look at student evaluations; far from it, I always did and I found them useful and illuminating, but the data was very noisy. I’d love to see teachers be allowed to see these evaluations without there being punitive consequences.

The bad teacher conspiracy

Any time I see an article about the evaluation system for teachers in New York State, I wince. People get it wrong so very often. Yesterday’s New York Times article written by Elizabeth Harris was even worse than usual.

First, her wording. She mentioned a severe drop in student reading and math proficiency rates statewide and attributed it to a change in the test to the Common Core, which she described as “more rigorous.”

The truth is closer to “students were tested on stuff that wasn’t in their curriculum.” And as you can imagine, if you are tested on stuff you didn’t learn, your score will go down (the Common Core has been plagued by a terrible roll-out, and the timing of this test is Exhibit A). Wording like this matters, because Harris is setting up her reader to attribute the falling scores to bad teachers.

Harris ends her piece with a reference to a teacher-tenure lawsuit: ‘In one of those cases, filed in Albany in July, court documents contrasted the high positive teacher ratings with poor student performance, and called the new evaluation system “deficient and superficial.” The suit said those evaluations were the “most highly predictive measure of whether a teacher will be awarded tenure.”’

In other words, Harris is painting a picture of undeserving teachers sneaking into tenure in spite of not doing their job. It’s ironic, because I actually agree with the statement that the new evaluation system is “deficient and superficial,” but in my case I think it is overly punitive to teachers – overly random, really, since it incorporates the toxic VAM model – but in her framing she is implying it is insufficiently punitive.

Let me dumb Harris’s argument down even further: How can we have 26% English proficiency among students and 94% effectiveness among teachers?! Let’s blame the teachers and question the legitimacy of tenure. 

Indeed, after reading the article I felt like looking into whether Harris is being paid by David Welch, the Silicon Valley dude who has vowed to fight teacher tenure nationwide. More likely she just doesn’t understand education and is convinced by simplistic reasoning.

In either case, she clearly needs to learn something about statistics. For that matter, so do other people who drag out this “blame the teacher” line whenever they see poor performance by students.

Because here’s the thing. Beyond obvious issues like switching the content of the tests away from the curriculum, standardized test scores everywhere are hugely dependent on the poverty levels of students. Some data:

naepstates11-1024x744

 

It’s not just in this country, either:

Considering how many poor kids we have in the U.S., we are actually doing pretty well.

Considering how many poor kids we have in the U.S., we are actually doing pretty well.

 

The conclusion is that, unless you think bad teachers have somehow taken over poor schools everywhere and booted out the good teachers, and good teachers have taken over rich schools everywhere and booted out the bad teachers (which is supposed to be impossible, right?), poverty has much more of an effect than teachers.

Just to clarify this reasoning, let me give you another example: we could blame bad journalists for lower rates of newspaper readership at a given paper, but since newspaper readership is going down everywhere we’d be blaming journalists for what is a cultural issue.

Or, we could develop a process by which we congratulate specific policemen for a reduced crime rate, but then we’d have to admit that crime is down all over the country.

I’m not saying there aren’t bad teachers, because I’m sure there are. But by only focusing on rooting out bad teachers, we are ignoring an even bigger and harder problem. And no, it won’t be solved by privatizing and corporatizing public schools. We need to address childhood poverty. Here’s one more visual for the road:

americas-new-race-to-the-top1

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