White House recognizing risks of big data

A new report by the federal chief technology officer highlights the power of big data while also emphasizing the need to consider its ethical implications.

The Obama administration fashioned itself as the “big data” White House almost from the beginning. Looking back at the litany of initiatives, starting with Data.gov, to the $200 million proposed investment in big data projects in 2012, to the naming of the first federal chief data scientist, the White House deeply enjoys talking about the real and potential impact data can have on the government and society at-large.

While there is plenty of reason to question the administration’s self-proclaimed desire to “unleash the power of data” — many will say the only data the White House wants to make public is the self-congratulatory type or the fact that Data.gov hasn’t lived up to its billing — the latest White House report on big data is a better example of the true power of open data. and worth reading.

“What stands out to me in this particular report is how important it is to think about the ethical implications of both data collection and algorithm design,” said Nick Sinai, a former deputy chief technology officer at the White House during the Obama administration, and now an adjunct lecturer in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and a venturepPartner at Insight Venture Partners. “Whether it’s hiring, college admissions, or credit decisions, we need to make sure the use of big data technology starts with principles of ‘equal opportunity by design.’ In criminal justice, for example, we’ve seen what happens when data inputs reflect racial bias in building predictive algorithms — and thereby perpetuate discriminatory outcomes in pretrial release, sentencing, and parole decisions.”

Sinai’s comments highlight a growing understanding of the power of big data outside the usual communities.

Whether it’s law enforcement using body cameras, or stores sending citizens coupons based on previous purchases, or health providers recognizing trends among patients, the fear of the “mosaic effect” is becoming much more real.

In fact, federal Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith, federal Chief Data Scientist DJ Patil and Cecilia Muñoz, the assistant to the President and director of the Domestic Policy Council, wrote in a blog post that the goal of the report is to identify issues around the use of big data, and promote discussions and research.

“The report includes a number of recommendations for advancing work in this nascent field of data and ethics. These include investing in research, broadening and diversifying technical leadership, cross-training, and expanded literacy on data discrimination, bolstering accountability, and creating standards for use within both the government and the private sector,” the three wrote in the May 4 blog. “It also calls on computer and data science programs and professionals to promote fairness and opportunity as part of an overall commitment to the responsible and ethical use of data.”

Concerns about the mosaic effect — the idea that when multiple datasets that by themselves have no sensitive information are brought together, they show a picture or identify personal information — rose back in 2013 when President Barack Obama signed an executive order and former federal Chief Information Officer Steve VanRoekel issued an open data policy.

Three years later, the White House seems to be highlighting similar concerns, calling out the risks of big data.

The risks are broader than just the “mosaic effect”, but as tools get more powerful and data continues to grow, there is plenty to be concerned about.

Sinai said to mitigate those risks, agencies and private sector developers of apps and tools needed to start with the principles of “equal opportunity by design.”

“In criminal justice, for example, we’ve seen what happens when data inputs reflect racial bias in building predictive algorithms—  and thereby perpetuate discriminatory outcomes in pretrial release, sentencing, and parole decisions,” he said.

The report highlighted several recommendations and agency efforts to address these potential and real risks.

“The Networking and Information Technology Research and Development Program and the National Science Foundation (NSF) are developing research strategy proposals that will incorporate these elements and encourage researchers to continue to look at these issues,” the report stated. “Through its support of the Council for Big Data, Ethics, and Society, as well as other efforts, NSF will continue to work with scientific, technical, and academic leaders to encourage the inclusion of data ethics within both research projects and student coursework and to develop interdisciplinary frameworks to help researchers, practitioners, and the public understand the complex issues surrounding big data, including discrimination, disparate impact, and associated issues of transparency and accountability.”

The White House says the initiatives highlighted in the report and several others are part of its plan to advance the smart use of big data across the country.

The administration also focused internally as agencies are hiring “data scientists … who are working to use cutting edge technologies and techniques to ensure the government is accessible and user-friendly for all citizens.”

Bringing in the right people with the proper understanding of the power and risks of big data is a great start to help avoid unintentional  connections that could harm agencies or employees.

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