Big Data

Big data policy preview reveals equity concerns

analytics concept art

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 FCW's senior staff writer, and covers Congress, health IT and governmentwide IT policy. Connect with him on Twitter: @thisismaz.

The 2015 Federal 100

Meet 100 women and men who are doing great things in federal IT.

Featured

  • Shutterstock image (by venimo): e-learning concept image, digital content and online webinar icons.

    Can MOOCs make the grade for federal training?

    Massive open online courses can offer specialized IT instruction on a flexible schedule and on the cheap. That may not always mesh with government's preference for structure and certification, however.

  • Shutterstock image (by edel): graduation cap and diploma.

    Cybersecurity: 6 schools with the right stuff

    The federal government craves more cybersecurity professionals. These six schools are helping meet that demand.

  • Rick Holgate

    Holgate to depart ATF

    Former ACT president will take a job with Gartner, follow his spouse to Vienna, Austria.

  • Are VA techies slacking off on Yammer?

    A new IG report cites security and productivity concerns associated with employees' use of the popular online collaboration tool.

  • Shutterstock image: digital fingerprint, cyber crime.

    Exclusive: The OPM breach details you haven't seen

    An official timeline of the Office of Personnel Management breach obtained by FCW pinpoints the hackers’ calibrated extraction of data, and the government's step-by-step response.

  • Stephen Warren

    Deputy CIO Warren exits VA

    The onetime acting CIO at Veterans Affairs will be taking over CIO duties at the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.

  • Shutterstock image: monitoring factors of healthcare.

    DOD awards massive health records contract

    Leidos, Accenture and Cerner pull off an unexpected win of the multi-billion-dollar Defense Healthcare Management System Modernization contract, beating out the presumptive health-records leader.

  • Sweating the OPM data breach -- Illustration by Dragutin Cvijanovic

    Sweating the stolen data

    Millions of background-check records were compromised, OPM now says. Here's the jaw-dropping range of personal data that was exposed.

  • FCW magazine

    Let's talk about Alliant 2

    The General Services Administration is going to great lengths to gather feedback on its IT services GWAC. Will it make for a better acquisition vehicle?

Reader comments

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above