How does big data help us better solve big problems?

DJ Patil talks about using data to tackle some big policy issues in his role as the Deputy Chief Technology Officer for Data Policy at the White House.

Vocabulary: big data, bias, algorithms
 NGSS: SEP4 Analyzing and Interpreting Data

Common Core State Standards: CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.8.2, CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.9–10.2, CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.11–12.2

In 2013, taking a page out of the Silicon Valley playbook, President Obama signed an executive order that made open and machine-readable data the new default for government information. In 2015 he appointed DJ Patil to the newly created role of Deputy Chief Technology Officer for Data Policy at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Patil, who had worked in the private sector for Ebay, LinkedIn, and others, once honed his skills in data science by improving mathematical models for weather prediction using open data sets available through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Now he was going to use data to tackle problems in areas that required the most spending (costing $1 trillion or more), and which served the greatest number of Americans.

One of those big issues involved the criminal justice system. In 2015 Patil helped launch the White House’s Police Data Initiative, through which police jurisdictions release data collected on their policing, including information about the use of force and traffic stops. By looking at the data, Patil noticed that a number of negative police encounters occurred just after an officer had responded to a suicide or domestic violence call, which suggested that quickly re-dispatching these officers to their normal beat without giving them time to decompress may have led to the incidents of violence.

Science Friday Audio Excerpt “An Exit Interview With U.S. Chief Data Scientist DJ Patil” 12/9/2016. (Original Segment)

Print this segment transcript.

Questions for Students

  • DJ Patil talks about using technology and data to benefit every person. Do you agree with his assertion that “…a technology is neither radical nor revolutionary, unless it benefits every since person”? Why?
  • Predictive policing uses algorithms and certain data sets to inform crime prevention strategies. What are ways that bias or discrimination could be introduced into these types of calculations? How should we combat that problem?
  • Do you think that the government should make big data sets available to the public? Why?
  • Should there be limits on which data are made available to the public? Why or why not? Develop criteria for deciding which data should be publicly accessible.

Activity Suggestion

Have students try their hand at analyzing and interpreting data that they find online or collect themselves. You can start by checking out these recommended climate resources, mapping vectored diseases, or graphing the distribution of a sneeze.

[Want to know more about DJ Patil? Check out 10 Questions for the Nation’s First Chief Data Scientist.]