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How the new field of data science is grappling with ethics

By  | Smart Planet

It’s hard to imagine a world without personalized recommendations — one in which Amazon and Netflix don’t know what books or movies you might like, or Facebook and LinkedIn don’t invite you to connect with friends and acquaintances. Analysis of our online activities is so advanced that inone famous anecdote retailer Target “knew” a teenage girl was pregnant before her father did: he found out after the store sent her coupons for baby clothes and cribs.

As we become more aware of how our actions are being studied, new academic programs in data science are cropping up with more frequency. This year, New York University and Columbia University launched new courses of study, joining similar programs at Stanford University,Northwestern UniversitySyracuse University and other educational institutions. The services of these graduates will be in demand: the McKinsey Global Institute reports that, for example, big data — or, analysis of large data sets — could help retailers increase operating margins by 60 percent and reduce U.S. healthcare expenditures by 8 percent.

But even as we embrace the potential benefits, this summer’s revelations about surveillance activities by the National Security Agency show that progress often comes at a cost — in this case, to privacy. A Pew Internet and American Life study released last week showed that 86 percent of Internet users have made steps to remove or mask their identities online. Meanwhile, some companies are even trying to be open about their activities: Acxiom Corp., which collects and sells data about individuals to companies, just launched Aboutthedata.com, a site where Internet users can see and manage what Acxiom knows about them.

As new academic programs catch up with the use of big data in the real world, many also are grappling with how to teach ethics.

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