Discrimination by Math

5399389a5e1ae61cf1eda5d0e84ef070Seattle   Having spent a week in Juneau, Alaska working with men and women dealing daily with the stigma and discrimination that comes with mental health challenges and disabilities, I should have been prepared for Cathy O’Neil’s Weapons of Math Destruction and its warnings of the pervasive, powerful, and often destructive and discriminating role that Big Data and the algorithms it is fueling are having on all of our lives. I wasn’t. But, I also wasn’t surprised.

One of the issues I heard about from the members of MCAN included being fired from jobs in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). They didn’t know the half of it! O’Neil detailed the way that huge employers including lower wage service establishments like McDonalds and others are using personality tests with data driven questions that sort out people with any kind of mental health issue. A lawyer in Tennessee watched his son, a super student with two years at Vanderbilt University who had dropped out for a couple of semesters to deal with depression successfully, somehow failed to land any minimum wage jobs as a janitor, burger flipper, and so forth from a number of companies using the same blunt instrument of a personality test. He filed a ADA class action suit that is still pending. Even that may be only the tip of the iceberg since data driven, resume reader machines are also discarding applications with a few misspellings, bad typos, and other trivialities.

These WMD’s, as O’Neill cleverly calls them, are perhaps most destructive when it comes to the way too many of them from police and crime statistics to loan applications to even the efforts to get insurance or an apartment from a landlord are discriminating, often invisibly, based on the zip codes identifying where someone lives. The question may never say race or risk, but the zip code identifying the neighborhood plots the Big Data odds, and they do not stack up in your favor. Stop and frisk programs, common under New York mayors Guilliani and Bloomberg and now touted by Trump, under analysis revealed huge racial profiling and targeting of African-Americans and Latinos because of misapplied and understood algorithms.

It was also disconcerting, given our long experience in the United States and Canada in providing service at citizen wealth centers for low-and-moderate income families to find that algorithms employed by payday lenders, diploma mills, and other shyster, predatory operations that are datamining names and contact information from people who are going online to ask for information and access to programs to provide them advice or assistance. I shouldn’t have been surprised. I can remember complaining to our tech people years ago when we used Google Ads about the fact that I could be writing a Chief Organizer Report on our fights against payday lenders and find, embarrassingly, ads running alongside my blog for some of the same blood sucking, scammers I was calling into account in the paragraphs next to their ads. Duh!

It goes on and on. O’Neill cautions that there are dangers here, and they need to be regulated not just for privacy along the European opt-in system, but for transparency. If you ever thought, even for a second, that some of the “value-added” tests for teacher evaluations that many states have employed were valid or about the meaning of things like body-math-indexes and wellness, your application for McDonald’s would also probably be rejected.

She does argue that it is not the math’s fault, as much as the way the math is being used. With a different objective some of the same algorithms could be pointing people in the right direction, connecting them with resources, getting them out of prison, rather than in, and into a job rather than out on the street.

There seems to be no mathematical formula on when that miracle might happen.

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Beat Goes On But Ecuadorian Economy Reeling

DSCN1351Quito    I had not visited Ecuador for three years. I sat for hours in the sparkling new airport that opened after my last visit or more specifically in the Airport Center across the street from the actual ticket counters, security, gates and airplanes. If modern airports have become shopping malls serviced by airplanes and runways, Quito has essentially built a mall across the walkway from their airport. There’s a patio. There are plenty of chairs and free Wi-Fi. There are many worse places in the wide world to spent hours waiting for a plane.

Walking through the main streets of the city near our hotel not far from the major park and Botanical Garden, everything seemed clean and well-ordered. The coffee shops were active and on the streets people bustled along in well-turned sport coats or high heels and big leather purses. Talking to friends, colleagues, and organizers we had worked with us on campaigns either in the United States or Ecuador or both, a more unsettling picture emerges.

This is not Venezuela where food riots have become almost daily occurrences and political and social unrest is intense, but nonetheless Ecuador at all levels is feeling the pain. One former political activist we knew well from our work on field operations in the last presidential campaign in Ecuador in describing the impact of the falling price of oil, remarked that 60% of the national budget was derived from oil revenues and even as the price moves towards the $50 per barrel that is essentially breakeven in the United States, Ecuador needs the price to hit $60 to $70 because of the extra cost of bringing their crude to the market. An organizer I had worked with at Casa de Maryland, back home now and working at a governmental ministry, told us that this year the budget of her department had been cut from $20 million to $6 million. Needless to say, the impact was devastating and the layoffs severe. She was surprised to still have a job!

Many don’t! An activist we knew, was now living at home. Her brother had lost his job with the state, and her sister in another job had her hours cut in half. An old friend, comrade and former organizer who had worked with us in Florida on our Walmart campaigns a decade ago, told me when he responded to my email and arranged to meet us for breakfast at the hotel that he would do his best to make it because “he was so busy.” When we met, I asked him what kind of jobs he was handling now that were keeping him so busy. “None,” came the surprising answer from my well-connected friend. He was hustling just to keep above water. A job in another country had mysteriously fallen through a week before. When I asked after his father, an elegant and sophisticated gentlemen, whom I admired and knew well and would have thought traveled smoothly in the upper class of the country, I learned he was also now unemployed and in danger of losing his home.

I worried that our members, many of whom depended on the “bono” or basic, cash welfare assistance that President Correa had raised unilaterally in the previous political campaign, might have seen that cutback. The answer from everyone we talked to was, “Not yet,” which was hardly reassuring. Higher oil prices had led to more robust economic projects, expanded public programs and public employment, and increased debt for Ecuador, both externally and internally. Like any bubble of sorts, the country, like Venezuela and smaller states like Louisiana, was caught still standing when the music stopped and everyone raised for a chair.

After the encouraging gains in many Andean countries where recent economic growth in Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia had lifted education, citizen wealth, health, and living standards, one gets the sense that this is unraveling in a case study of what globalization gives, it then takes away. We met with two young doctors. They were originally from Honduras, but had trained for seven years in the vaunted Cuban healthcare system. They wanted to practice in rural areas where the need was greatest, but Honduras had no government program to support their work, so then ended up in Ecuador about 4 hours by bus from Quito. I asked them to rank the healthcare systems they knew and how the economic situation was impacting healthcare. Not surprisingly, they said of the three, Cuba was first, Honduras last, and Ecuador in-between. As for the economy, they were still getting paid, so at least that was something they said, but they could already see shortages starting to show up in medicine supplies.

Being forced to root for the price of a barrel of oil to go up just about says it all about the unsustainable economy we have built in the world.

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