Big Data

Big data policy preview reveals equity concerns

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Big data may have a dark side, according to White House advisor John Podesta, the presidential counselor who is heading the Obama administration’s review of big data policy.

While Podesta didn't disclose any recommendations contained in the upcoming report, he told the Associated Press that large consumer datasets and advanced analytics could be used to target certain groups for discrimination, potentially in obtaining credit, housing and employment.

"With the rapidity of the way technology changes, it's going to be hard to imagine what it's going to look like a generation from now,” Podesta said. “But at least we can look out over the horizon and say, 'Here are the trends. What do we anticipate are the likely policy issues that it raises?'"

In an April 1 speech, Podesta teed up many of these issues. Despite the promises of using big data to improve medical care, business processes, government services and more, Podesta noted that the existing legal framework around data collection may be insufficient to inform Americans about the kinds of data they are sharing, perhaps inadvertently. Additionally, he said in the speech, "it's easy to imagine how big data technology, if used to cross legal lines we have been careful to set, could end up reinforcing existing inequities in housing, credit, employment, health, and education."

A related speech by Federal Trade Commission member Maureen K. Ohlhausen suggested that a shift in the data collection consent framework might be needed to accommodate researchers who find uses for data that were unanticipated at the time of its collection. Strict limits on reuse, she said, "would handicap the data scientist’s ability to find new information to address future tasks."

The benefits of big data applications also have the potential to tilt toward affluent communities. Both Podesta and Ohlhausen made reference to an app called StreetBump deployed by the City of Boston, which uses mobile phone location data to detect potholes. It turned out that the app, which was downloaded by smartphone users, deployed city services toward richer parts of town.

"The lesson here is that we need to pay careful attention to what unexpected outcomes the use of big data might lead to, and how to remedy any unintended discrimination or inequality that may result," Podesta said in the April 1 speech.

The White House big data study was pitched as a "scoping exercise" and isn't expected to lead to big new policy initiatives. The findings are expected to be released in the coming days.

About the Author

Adam Mazmanian is a staff writer covering Congress, the FCC and other key agencies. Connect with him on Twitter: @thisismaz.

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