Countering the Biases of Big Data: The Challenges and Opportunities of Technological Innovation

In 2012, the Obama Administration launched the “Big Data Research and Development Initiative”, with the goal of transforming the nation’s “ability to use Big Data for scientific discovery, environmental and biomedical research, education, and national security.” Harnessing the power of big data, though useful, does come with its challenges.  Specifically the challenge of biases.  Many in the U.S. government worry that “discrimination may be the inadvertent outcome of the way big data technologies are structured and used.” That is why the Obama Administration recently released a report titled Big Data: A Report on Algorithmic Systems, Opportunity, and Civil Rights, which outlines some of the problems facing the use of big data and the opportunities to fix them.  The report examines case studies involving credit, employment, education, and criminal justice, which “shed light on how using big data to expand opportunity has the potential to introduce bias inadvertently that could affect individuals or groups.”

The problem with biases and discrimination in big data coincides with the Obama Administration’s push for utilize more big data tools. The White House released an additional report that “defines a set of interrelated strategies for Federal agencies that conduct or sponsor R&D in data sciences, data-intensive applications, and large-scale data management and analysis.” The Federal Big Data Research and Development Strategic Plan “is built around seven strategies that represent key areas of importance for Big Data research and development (R&D).”  Priorities within each strategy include ”advancing human understanding in all branches of science, medicine, and security; ensuring the Nation’s continued leadership in research and development; and enhancing the Nation’s ability to address pressing societal and environmental issues facing the Nation and the world through research and development.”