General Studies Student Aims to Create a Repository for Data at Columbia

Juliette Powell always knew that a college education would take her places. But she never expected Finland to be one of them. Powell, a student in her final year at Columbia’s School of General Studies (GS), recently visited Helsinki to learn about an innovative program there that pays people for their data.

“Why not?” says Powell. “Now that corporations have gotten so good at monetizing data, why not pay for it?”

Inspired by the Helsinki program, Powell is developing a Datapreneur Initiative at Columbia that aims to create a repository of data from students, researchers and the surrounding neighborhoods. Powell plans to train “datapreneurs” in data-collection techniques and design apps to collect data from participants who opt into the initiative. The datapreneurs will be paid for their data-collection work – thus the name of the project, which she’s doing as an independent study.

Powell envisions the initiative as similar to an Ebay for data, in which people will be paid to upload their data onto a platform where others can search and find the data they need. But unlike Ebay, her intent is not to profit but to create a hub of data that researchers at Columbia as well as local residents can use to solve research problems or help their communities.

In terms of what kind of data she’ll collect, Powell says she’ll begin by amassing as much data as she can so that the repository becomes a valuable service to many different researchers, students and residents. She’ll especially strive to collect data from minority groups, for whom she says data is often lacking. To secure the data and the privacy of participants, Powell is working with Columbia Law School to develop security protocols.

“We will collect all kinds of data on all kinds of subjects,” says Powell, who was recently awarded a grant from the Kenan Charitable Trust to support the Datapreneur Initiative. “It could be anything from eye movements during video games to psychological information about how people feel during the day. People studying computer vision or doing psychological research can then search the repository and find the data they need. It will be a great service to Columbia.”

Powell always has had a successful and interesting career. She lectures at institutions like Harvard and MIT, advises CEOs for major corporations and has founded her own think tank, The Gathering, all before earning a bachelor’s degree. She’s also written a book about social networks, titled “33 Million People in the Room: How to Create, Influence, and Run a Successful Business with Social Networking.” In addition, she’s a member of the IEEE working group on AI ethics and considerations in algorithmic bias, a group that creates standards to help data scientists develop unbiased algorithms. A few years ago, she founded Turing AI, a commercial offshoot of We the Data, a project she developed to help government agencies and firms enhance their data techniques. Canada’s Office of Employment and Social Development recently engaged Turing AI to help it streamline and improve its use of data science. Bloomberg TV and Business News Network, moreover, feature Powell weekly as a technology and AI expert.

Erica McGibbon, a senior assistant dean at the School of General Studies, who advises Powell, describes what she’s doing on data and diversity as “a much needed perspective in the field of data science, with an impressive capacity to help address the evolving and multifaceted key socio-economic issues of our time.”

The Helsinki Formula

As part of her study, Powell is researching a data-sharing and data-paying initiative started by Finland’s largest private employer, the S-Group, a network of companies in the retail and service industry that has more than 1,600 outlets. Powell has visited Helsinki to study the feasibility of doing a similar data-driven business model at Columbia as part of her Datapreneur Initiative. The Finland initiative is enormously popular and engages about 3 million Finns, more than 80 percent of the working-age population, who get paid for their participation and data, she says. Their data are analyzed by the Finnish government to assess public needs and to shape public policy. Those who opt into the initiative are issued loyalty cards, or chip readers, that record their purchases. S-Group’s Omnichannel collects participant data, either by recognizing the customer’s in-store cards or identifying them via login information with mobile apps. Participants can receive up to 5 percent of the amount of their purchases as payment for their personal data, Powell says. The money is automatically deposited directly into member’s S-Group bank account, creating what Powell calls “a virtuous cycle of data, disposable income, goodwill, and trust.” With this project, she adds, the Finns are strategically investing in “the future of data-driven automation.”

Powell worked on the project under the direction of Wouter Dessein, the Eli Ginzberg Professor of Finance and Economics and chair of the Economics Division at Columbia Business School. The project will be the basis for a case study on the S-Group, to be published sometime in the fall by Columbia CaseWorks, which develops teaching cases for the Columbia Business School.

“The Finns are collecting transactional data and whatever data each citizen has chosen to share by opting into the initiative helps the Finnish government shape policy,” says Powell. “I want to find out if, and how, this is applicable to America.”

Coding Is Personal

Powell is also deeply interested in combating the prevalence of bias in data. In an essay she wrote for one of her courses earlier this year, she stressed this point: “You’d think that the automation of data would make for a less biased system,” she wrote. “But it’s easy to forget that whoever codes the system, codes his views into the system.” That realization motivates her to show how technology, specifically AI and big data, can reproduce and amplify societal inequality.

The bias in technology became apparent to Powell last year when she was caring for her mother, who was diagnosed with cancer. She stopped working to become her mother’s caretaker, a period during which she closely monitor the news. She raptly followed the escalating accounts of data breaches, fake news, and the ethical lapses of artificial intelligence. One story in particular, about the development of a Google photo app that mistakenly identified black people as gorillas, stunned her. It was then that she decided to apply to Columbia and focus on the responsible use of data. And on the day her mother died, Powell received an acceptance letter from Columbia. She says she immediately gave away all her and her mother’s possessions, packed up her jeep and drove from L.A. to New York to start life anew in academia.

“If we don’t eliminate bias in data, then algorithms and AI will compound gender, racial and class inequalities,” she says. “I’m dedicated to the notion that our personal data belongs to us and that it should be used not for profit but for the betterment of us all. Data exploitation, or ‘dataploitation,’ can have disastrous real-world consequences, including unfair incarceration or unjust denial of loans. The way to end dataploitation is by developing empowering models of datapreneurship.”

A Successful Career: Humble Beginnings

Earlier in her career, Powell produced TED talks and in partnership with Intel Labs created the We the Data project, which was featured at the World Economic Forum to help people retain control over their data and learn to benefit from it.

Her life began humbly, in a modest Montreal apartment where her mother, then studying to be a cryptographer, taught Powell to code. “My mother loved to paint, read the classics and code computers,” says Powell, passions she passed on to her daughter. She also told me I was smart enough to do whatever I wanted to do.”

Her mother’s career ambitions were curtailed by being a single mother and by poverty, says Powell. But she gave Powell the confidence to complete her education and realize her own career ambitions. Her mother’s significant sense of social justice, imbues all her work, including her efforts to democratize data and eradicate bias in technology.

“When my mother was diagnosed with cancer, her doctor gave her a month to live,” says Powell. But she lived for two years. “Isn’t it amazing what love can do? She died in my arms and I was happy I could be there for her in the end.”

Datapreneurship 101

At the age of 19, Powell founded her own consulting company, Powell International Entertainment. The company produced features with the likes of Nelson Mandela, Sir Richard Branson, and Steven Spielberg. In 2001, she was sent to South Africa as a youth delegate to the United Nations sponsored World Conference Against Racism, where she co-authored the media section for the United Nations Plan of Action. As a TED mentor in 2011, she focused on producing talks on emerging technologies. For one project, she partnered with Intel Labs and co-founded We the Data, a website that fosters international conversations around the need to decentralize and democratize data and to help communities gain control over and benefit from their data. As an example of why this project is necessary, she points out that as a consult to CEOs, CIOs, and technologists on data-science projects, she says she’s often the only woman in the room, “which in itself means the creation of technology is likely to be biased, since it’s been spearheaded largely by white men.” Her aim at Columbia and beyond is to correct such biases.

“Columbia is shaping the next generation of data scientists,” says Powell. “And as a university we need to gather data from all socioeconomic groups and races to ensure that bias doesn’t creep into our algorithms and datasets. In this way, we can ensure that data science will be used for the good of us all.”

— Robert Florida