“Does Big Data Threaten Our Democracy?” with guest Cathy O’Neil



Most of us know that every time Facebook changes its algorithm, it chooses which friends we see, and that when a credit bureau changes their algorithm, it determines which houses we can buy. What most of us don’t know is that algorithms also determine who gets arrested and who bags our groceries. On this episode of Why? Radio, we examine what it means to be a data scientist and discuss the flaws and possibilities of mathematical analysis. We also gauge the moral and political impact of big data on our everyday lives, asking about the ways in which it can undermine equality and freedom.

Cathy O’Neil earned a Ph.D. in math from Harvard, was a postdoc at the MIT math department, and a professor at Barnard College where she published a number of research papers in arithmetic algebraic geometry. She then switched over to the private sector, working as a quant for the hedge fund D.E. Shaw in the middle of the credit crisis, and then for RiskMetrics, a risk software company that assesses risk for the holdings of hedge funds and banks. She left finance in 2011 and started working as a data scientist in the New York start-up scene, building models that predicted people’s purchases and clicks. She wrote Doing Data Science in 2013 and launched the Lede Program in Data Journalism at Columbia in 2014. She is a regular contributor to Bloomberg View and wrote the book Weapons of Math Destruction: how big data increases inequality and threatens democracyShe recently founded ORCAA, an algorithmic auditing company. She maintains a blog at Mathbabe.org.

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