DJ Patil wants Silicon Valley to work on real problems

I was fortunate enough to attend a Q&A with United States Chief Data Scientist DJ Patil at the Commonwealth Club last week. DJ was keen to stress the challenges facing the US government and the Big Data available to help solve these problems. But noted that the talent and progress we see in technology is not being applied to ‘real’ problems.

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DJ gave examples from Law Enforcement and Health Care amongst as areas that are ripe for disruption by data and technology. He also stressed that much public data is readily available online, both at the local and national level – and he invited the Data Scientists in the audience to start hacking for social solutions!

Beating the government: is big data crucial or creepy?

An article on Thursday in the UK online tech journal ArsTechnica reviews the surprising power of mobile communications data to identify trending unemployment.

PLOS One paper and Journal of the Royal Society Interface paper both published last week look at changes in the frequency, location, and timing of interactions between people via their cellular records. The correlations between these changes and observed layoffs can be used to train models for future predictions.

The article asks: is this harvesting of phone records to get ahead of employment shocks a critical tool for planners and government officials? Or actually a very creepy and invasive use of personal information? Comments welcome!

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This image, unrelated to the unemployment study, shows seasonal population changes in France and Portugal, measured by cellphone activity.