This is Part 2 of our two-part series on “Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy,” a 2016 release by author Cathy O’Neil and one of the top ten nominees for the National Book Award in non-fiction. If you missed BlastPoint’s first reflection on this thought-provoking book, check out Part 1 here!
One overarching theme of Cathy O’Neil’s book, “Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy,” is that our society punishes poverty.
Driven by unfair algorithms, O’Neil argues, mortgage applications (p. 162), standardized school exams (p. 5), and job questionnaires (p. 112) are historically biased against the poor, compounding financial barriers with social ones, making low- or no-wage earners even more vulnerable than they already are.
Our team has been chewing on this issue over the past few weeks, as we’ve all had a chance to read “WMDs” for our most recent, occasional company book club discussion. And it’s only made us that much more committed to our work: making data accessible so that all the members of our community, even the most vulnerable, can be empowered and uplifted.
Independent of O’Neil’s book, we know that living in poverty adversely affects people’s health (read health and policy experts Dhruv Khullar and Dave A. Chokshi’s October 2018 report at HealthAffairs.org).
And we’ve learned how the criminal justice system is simultaneously easier to slip into and harder to get out of for those who are poor. (See Karen Dolan’s 2015 report, “The Poor Get Prison: The Alarming Spread of Criminalization in Poverty”)
While these statistics are deeply disturbing, we’re grateful that the field of data analytics has matured exponentially since the WMDs book was published. These days, using data, we can better understand the challenges people face and, therefore, make sure they get the services they need.
What’s needed, though, are human leaders who are committed to using data with good intentions.
Algorithms are achieving much more highly sophisticated levels of precision and accuracy than ever before, allowing us to be much more confident, as an industry, about the data we’re uncovering and the population segments we sample. When people choose to use data for good, in other words, great things happen.
Around the globe, new and pioneering technologies are being developed in healthcare: “We have taken a major step forward in this field by developing a unique and holistic approach to predicting a person’s risk of premature death by machine-learning,” announced University of Nottingham Assistant Professor of Epidemiology and Data Science, Dr. Stephen Weng, during a recent press conference (first reported by EurekaAlert.org).
Right here at home, BlastPoint is using technology to help energy providers and social service agencies locate where their most vulnerable customers and clients are located. This lets them reach out sooner to offer life-preserving services before it’s too late.
Our platform, for example, lets us illuminate annual income disparities in a region, compare renters versus homeowners, and identify how many people own vehicles in one area versus another.
We can use that data to deepen our understanding, for example, by analyzing how many health assistance subscribers reside here versus there, and then comparing that against others, like local bus routes, drive times, and walk time estimates that residents would have to travel to get to the nearest healthcare facility, church or community center.
Looking at all of these factors together helps our customers paint a clear picture of what kinds of social, economic, or medical hardships people may be facing.
Detailed data lets us better understand who doesn’t have access to critical services, why they don’t have access, and how best to connect them to those services.
Armed with so much knowledge, now companies have the power to address the needs of the most vulnerable: more quickly, more efficiently, and more relevantly.
Utility companies are one sector that’s eager to understand how they can build, what we call in the industry, 360° Customer Profiles, to better serve their customers. Using platforms like ours, for example, they know who is at risk of missing an electric or gas bill payment well before it happens. Which means these companies are reaching out and enrolling at-risk customers in energy assistance programs or setting them up with budget payment plans before it’s too late.
We’re grateful that we live in an age where we can move beyond the biased algorithms O’Neil talks about in her book. We’re working hard every day to develop even more sophisticated, more detailed, real-time intelligence systems. And we’re inspired by the company leaders who are eager to adopt these tools with good intentions so that they can put them to work bringing value to their customers.
And we’re driven to keep improving our platform by the desire to identify, reach, and serve our community’s most vulnerable, long before disaster strikes.