Fighting discrimination — with big data

With great power comes great responsibility, government regulators have recently reminded players in the big data world.

While big data and new technologies are transforming how Americans live, work and play, the data-driven revolution has also raised privacy and civil rights concerns. Next week, at the public workshop “Big Data: A Tool for Inclusion or Exclusion?,” the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) will explore one of big data’s most important challenges head on.

{mosads}Both the White House and the FTC have raised concerns that big data — particularly when used to profile and classify individuals or make predictions about their behaviors — may enable discrimination and reinforce social stratification.

They are right to be concerned. Even unintentionally, big data algorithms can harm minority groups by steering away benefits like deeper discounts, lower insurance rates or improved city services.

But while big data contains the potential for unfairness, it is also a critical tool for finding and fighting discrimination.

By using big data’s sophisticated predictive tools to examine large, dynamic databases, organizations are increasingly able to expose and address patterns of inequality. Fifty years after the Civil Rights Act promised equal opportunity for all, big data is being leveraged to protect and empower vulnerable and underserved groups.

For example, when the Cedar Grove Institute for Sustainable Development began to combine land use, census and geographic data for Moore County, N.C., it revealed that city boundaries excluded minority communities. Data showed that towns in the county had annexed land and redrawn their boundaries around historically African-American neighborhoods. Because only those within the city’s boundaries had a right to vote in local elections or receive public services like water and sewage, economically driven annexation policies reinforced social inequalities.

With this data, researchers were able to compellingly demonstrate the scope of the towns’ racial disparities, sparking national media attention and activism — and ultimately the extension of city services and reconsideration of local government policies. Other data-driven studies have been used to show and fight discrimination in death penalty sentencing, housing decisions, healthcare offerings, school suspensions and police behavior.

In addition to bringing discrimination to light, big data analytics can also help remedy it more directly. For instance, the technology industry itself has made news for its lack of diversity, particularly in tech and leadership roles.

To help combat this trend, recruiting software company Entelo recently launched a “Diversity” product to help companies correct the underrepresentation of certain groups in their workforces. The tool allows employers to search for candidates with their desired professional qualifications and then filter by gender, race and military history, helping expand and diversify applicant pools. The software is designed to prevent recruiters from using it to discriminate against protected groups.

Fueled by publicly available social networking information, Entelo’s platform uses big data tools to actively support diversity recruiting in important industries. However, many of the data sets, predictive modeling techniques, and affinity-based classifications that power the Diversity tool also power the high-tech consumer profiling and scoring systems that most worry regulators.

While concerns about the potential misuse of big data are important and deserving of serious discussion, it is also clear that there is equal potential for big data to become a driver for positive social change. Consumers, businesses and regulators will need to work together to strike the right balance.

Big data is already changing how we view and interact with the world around us, including what we know about discrimination and how we respond to it.

Using data and data analytics, researchers have been able to expose and, more importantly, prove the existence of invidious discrimination not just in one county, but all around the nation. Equally important, big data capabilities help empower and connect individuals, companies and organizations fighting inequality around the world. When used responsibly, big data can continue to help us prevent discrimination, empower vulnerable groups and promote equality.

In order to help policymakers strike the right balance, the Future of Privacy Forum and the Anti-Defamation League have released “Big Data: A Tool for Fighting Discrimination and Empowering Groups,” a report that shows how big data is already working to ensure equal opportunity for all.

Polonetsky and Wolf are co-chairs of the Future of Privacy Forum.

Tags Big data Cedar Grove Institute for Sustainable Development Data analysis Federal Trade Commission FTC
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