TIME Data

Will We Have Any Privacy After the Big Data Revolution?

Operations Inside The Facebook Data Center
Operations inside the Facebook data center Bloomberg/Getty Images

Zocalo Public Square is a not-for-profit Ideas Exchange that blends live events and humanities journalism.

Corporations know more about their customer’s lives than ever before. But the information economy doesn't have to leave us exposed

Does the rise of big data mean the downfall of privacy? Mobile technologies now allow companies to map our every physical move, while our online activity is tracked click by click. Throughout 2014, BuzzFeed’s quizzes convinced millions of users to divulge seemingly private responses to a host of deeply personal questions. Although BuzzFeed claimed to mine only the larger trends of aggregate data, identifiable, personalized information could still be passed on to data brokers for a profit.

But the big data revolution also benefits individuals who give up some of their privacy. In January of this year, President Obama formed a Big Data and Privacy Working Group that decided big data was saving lives and saving taxpayer dollars, while also recommending new policies to govern big data practices. How much privacy do we really need? In advance of the Zócalo event “Does Corporate America Know Too Much About You?, we asked experts the following question: How can we best balance the corporate desire for big data and the need for individual privacy?

Corporations need to protect vulnerable data

Last week, the government of Singapore announced an increase in the cost of a toll at Bangunan Sultan Iskandar, the customs point for travelers entering and exiting between Singapore and Malaysia. Motorists, who will have to pay over five times more than they previous paid, are furious. In protest, a group of hackers, known simply as “The Knowns,” have decided to use their skills to hack into and release corporate data on customers. The group released the mobile numbers, identification, and addresses of more than 317,000 customers of Singapore-based karaoke company K Box.

In an era of “hacktivism,” data is necessarily vulnerable. So how do we negotiate between companies’ increasing needs to collect and store our personal digital data, individuals’ privacy and ethical needs, and governments that are often slow to gain an understanding of these needs and how to address changes in this area?

If we borrow from recent work by psychologists and ethicists, we can agree upon a few preliminary guidelines: 1) Before collecting private and personal data, consumers should be informed of what data a company intends to collect, how it will be stored and used, and what precautions are being made to protect their information from data attacks. 2) Consumers should be given the ability to consent and opt-out from collection of personal data. 3) Companies that are collecting and storing personal data should periodically remind their customers about their data storing policies.

Although companies should have the freedom to be innovative in their business models (such as by collecting new types of consumer data), these methods should not compromise the individuals on whom companies ultimately depend.

Sean D. Young is the Director of the UCLA Center for Digital Behavior and a medical school professor in the Department of Family Medicine. He writes and teaches about topics at the intersection of psychology, technologies, medicine, and business, at seanyoungphd.com.

Big data isn’t magic

A big data society seems to be inevitable, and promises much, but privacy (properly understood) must be an important part of any such society. To have both privacy and the benefits of big data, we need to keep four principles in mind:

First, we need to think broadly about privacy as more than just the keeping of a secret, but as the rules that must govern personal information. Privacy rules are information rules. We have rules now protecting trade secrets, financial and medical data, library records, and computer security. We have to accept the inevitability that more rules (legal, social, and technological) will be needed to govern the creation of large data sets and the use of big data analytics.

Second, we need to realize that information does not lose legal protection just because it is held by another person. Most information has always existed in intermediate states. If I tell you (or my lawyer) a secret, it is still a secret; in fact, that’s the definition of a secret, or as we lawyers call it, a confidence. We must ensure that big data sets are held confidentially and in trust for the benefit of the people whose data is contained in them. Confidentiality rules will be essential in any big data future.

Third, we need to realize that big data isn’t magic, and it will not inevitably make our society better. We must insist that any solutions to social problems based on big data actually work. We must also insist that they will produce outputs and outcomes that support human values like privacy, freedom of speech, our right to define our own identities, and political, social, economic, and other forms of equality. In other words, we need to develop some big data ethics as a society.

Finally, it’s important to recognize that privacy and big data aren’t always in tension. Judicious privacy rules can promote social trust and make big data predictions better and fairer for all.

Neil Richards (@neilmrichards) is a Professor of Law at Washington University in St. Louis and an internationally-recognized expert in privacy and information law. His book, Intellectual Privacy, will be published in January 2015 by Oxford University Press.

Corporate research is always an unequal exchange

When asking “how can we best balance” the desires of corporations and the needs of individuals, we need to recognize that there are different “we”s involved here. Executives at Google and Facebook are interested in learning from big data, but they are, naturally, more concerned about their own individual privacy than the privacy of their users.

As a political scientist, I’m interested in what I can learn from moderately sized data such as opinion polls and big data such as voter files. And I naively act as if privacy is not a concern, since I’m not personally snooping through anyone’s particular data.

Survey organizations also profit from individuals’ data: They typically do not pay respondents, but rather rely on people’s goodwill and public-spiritedness to motivate them to participate voluntarily in helping researchers and answering surveys. In that sense, the issue of privacy is just part of the traditional one-way approach to research in which researchers, corporate and otherwise, profit from uncompensated contributions of the public. It is not clear how to balance this unequal exchange.

Andrew Gelman is a professor of statistics and political science at Columbia University. His books include Bayesian Data Analysis and Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State: Why Americans Vote the Way They Do.

This discussion originally appeared on Zócalo Public Square.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME How-To

How to Double Check Your Google Account Security Settings

Google Account Settings
Google's account settings page shows which sites, services and devices have access to your account Google

The unofficial Google Operating System site writes about a little gem found under the security section of everyone’s Google account settings page.

Head over to your account’s security section, and click the “Get started” button located under the “Secure your Account” heading.

It’ll step you through the various lock-downs available for your Google account, including setting a recovery phone number, a recovery email address and the ability to revoke access for apps, websites and gadgets you no longer use. You’ll also be able to check out your recent activity to make sure nobody’s been using your account without your knowledge.

It’s a good idea to run through a security audit such as this every once in a while, especially after a high-profile data breach.

[Google Operating System]

MONEY privacy

Forget Facebook, Meet The Company That Will Pay You For Your Personal Data

Close up of lock on diary with money symbol
Looking Glass—Getty Images

DataCoup, a new "personal data marketplace," allows users to sell their private data directly to businesses. But will consumers feel comfortable taking the company up on its offer?

Matt Hogan wants to give you $10 a month in exchange for all of your personal data. Your Facebook likes. Your tweets. Your instagrams. Even your spending history. Everything about you, in other words, that’s digitally accessible.

Whether or not that sounds like a fair exchange, Hogan’s offer is better than zero, which is what we generally get paid for our data now — and that’s the reason many consumers just might be intrigued. After all, with Facebook, Google, and other companies making money off of every search-engine query and social media post they can get their hands on, isn’t it about time the people who generate all their data get a cut of the revenue it generates?

“There’s no other asset class [other than personal data] where the chief stakeholder has zero rights at the negotiating table,” Hogan argues.

That’s set to change if DataCoup, Hogan’s nascent “personal data marketplace,” succeeds. After a months-long beta, and a waiting list of over 10,000 prospective users, the finished product is set to be released to the public on Thursday. The free platform connects to a multitude of data sources, from social networks to bank accounts. DataCoup customers can then learn about the information they’ve connected through data visualizations, choose which data to sell, and to whom they wish to sell it.

The company says it will pay users based on what information they provide, with a maximum of $10 a month to start. As of now, DataCoup has no buyers for its data and is paying for user information out of pocket. However, Hogan says multiple parties have expressed interest in partnering with DataCoup if the platform is a success. He anticipates the price of personal data increasing as more companies become buyers, with compensation coming in the form of both cash and various coupons and discounts.

A Viable Business Model?

DataCoup didn’t exactly invent the idea of DIY data sales. Jaron Lanier, author of Who Owns the Future? has long argued that users of services like Google and Facebook should not only be monetarily compensated for their data but for the content they post as well. After all, there would be no Twitter without our tweets.

Hogan isn’t even the first person to try building a company around this concept. Various entrepreneurs, going back about a decade, have tried to let consumers take control of and sell their online information. In 2005, for example, an entrepreneur named Seth Goldstein penned a sort of privacy manifesto—”A Declaration of Gestural Independence”—that outlined four basic rights for the so-called attention market: the right to own your data, move your data, see how the data is being used, and to be paid for whatever information you choose to release. At the same time, he and a few like-minded technologists founded AttentionTrust.org with the hopes of achieving his treatise’s goals.

Out of this project came Root Vault, a browser extension that recorded its user’s browsing habits, ready to be sold if its owner so desired. Goldstein was never able to build a large enough user base to create a sustainable business, however, and his major data customers—mortgage brokers looking for potential leads—were destroyed by the housing crisis. Eventually, both RootVault and AttentionTrust shut down.

Today, Goldstein realizes most people prefer convenience to privacy. RootVault “was trying to create a solution to a problem that people didn’t feel acutely,” Goldstein told MONEY. “People don’t feel viscerally the issue of their data being exposed and monetized without their direct knowledge.” Even with new technology that makes sharing your data with a broker easier than ever, he thinks selling one’s own information remains a hassle that’s not worth the modest monetary reward.

One reason that reward is so modest is that companies own large portions of your data already. Columbia Business School professor Oded Netzer doesn’t doubt the value of the average consumer’s internet activity, but wonders if businesses don’t already have all the information they need. “The question is whether there is still value for additional data that can be sold,” notes Netzer.

Despite the naysayers, DataCoup remains unfazed. In order to make its value clearer, the company has put together a video series with experts from different fields describing alternatively utopian and dystopian visions of how the personal data economy might work in 2016. The upshot: Unless consumers take control of their data, both business and average Joes will suffer. “We’re really focused on educating people on why their data is so important,” explains Hogan.

The DataCoup founder agrees past attempts have failed, but thinks Edward Snowden’s disclosures, which revealed extensive NSA surveillance, have changed how consumers think about privacy. “Snowden opened up the psyche of consumers and made them realize they’re giving away data every time they do anything,” said Hogan. “Sometimes they get enough stuff in return, and sometimes they don’t.”

TIME Creativity

Geography of Genius: New Data About MacArthur Fellows Shows Creative People Move More

The next MacArthur genius grants will be announced September 17—here's what sets these remarkable individuals apart

Courtesy MacArthur Foundation

I was not sure where playwright Tarell McCraney would be when I called to tell him that he had won a MacArthur Fellowship and an accompanying stipend of $625,000 with no strings attached. McCraney grew up in Miami, went to college in Chicago, and had no permanent address last September when I was to share the news with him. McCraney is one of the 897 exceptionally creative individuals who have been recognized by the MacArthur Foundation since 1981 and, among our Fellows, his story is not unique. MacArthur Fellows turn out to be a highly mobile population, prompting us to ask, “Do highly creative people move more than others, or does moving make people more creative?”

We recently compared data on the geographic distribution of MacArthur Fellows at the time of the award to their distribution by place of birth. This is the first time that these data have been compiled and made available publicly. MacArthur Fellows are a distinctive demographic, people identified as “creative,” “talented,” “innovative,” and “intelligent” in a survey of thought leaders conducted for a recent program review. The data may shed light on the environments that nourish creative people.

We learned that MacArthur Fellows are more mobile than the general population. Of the 701 individuals born in the United States who have been named Fellows, 79% lived, at the time of the award, outside the state where they were born. According to recent U.S. Census Bureau data, approximately 30% of the general population and 42% of the college-educated population live outside the state where they were born.

Courtesy MacArthur Foundation

This pattern of mobility of MacArthur Fellows resembles that of exceptionally creative and innovative people throughout history. In a recent paper in Science, Maximilian Schich and his collaborators observe that notable antiquarians of the eighteenth century were born all over Europe but died in cultural centers such as Rome, Paris, or Dresden. Fellows display an analogous tendency to congregate in cultural centers. Comparing birthplace to location at the time of the award, the most popular destination state for Fellows was California, followed by New York. For example, 2009 Fellow Camille Utterback, born in Indiana, and 2008 Fellow Walter Kitundu, born in Minnesota – both artists – lived in San Francisco at the time of the award.

People move for a variety of reasons, but one driving factor is economic opportunity. Scientists tend to cluster near the research universities and high-tech corridors of Massachusetts and California. For those in the arts, the concentration of potential employers and prospective customers in New York City, Los Angeles, and San Francisco makes these urban centers attractive places to live. In addition, there are spillover benefits of being surrounded by other artists – the density of artists makes it possible for supporting services such as art supply stores or instrument repairers to prosper.

But the factors that affect location decisions are not purely economic. Richard Florida, an economist who has written extensively on the creative class, argues that talent is attracted to cultural amenities and to a high degree of openness to diversity. And the economic benefits of cultural centers are sometimes counterbalanced by their high cost of living. These factors might explain why, when we adjust for population, the states that most MacArthur Fellows call home include New Mexico, Alaska, and Vermont.

Our information on location at the time of the award is based largely on place of employment, but some Fellows worked in one state and lived in another. There are also Fellows who are difficult to assign to a single “home,” and Fellows for whom the spiritual home might be very different from the place where they live. Author and 2013 MacArthur Fellow Karen Russell was born in Florida, lives in New York, but was teaching in Camden, New Jersey, at the time of the award. Many of her stories take place in the Florida Everglades.

The data also highlight the contribution of immigrants to the creative culture of the United States. Nearly a quarter of MacArthur Fellows were born outside of the country. Though Fellows must be citizens or residents of the United States, their countries of origin span the globe. Historian and 2003 Fellow Anders Winroth was born in Sweden and was teaching at Yale University in Connecticut at the time of the award. Economist and 2012 Fellow Raj Chetty was born in India but attended college and now works in Massachusetts. Atomic physicist and 2013 Fellow Ana Maria Rey was born in Colombia, earned her doctorate in Maryland, and now lives in Colorado.

Courtesy MacArthur Foundation

It may be, as suggested in a 2012 article in Nature, that research money is the driving force behind the global migration of scientists – exceptionally creative scientists move to the United States because of its science and technology infrastructure. However, it is also possible that the scientists who move to the United States become more creative because of the move. In a series of studies, social psychologists Adam Galinsky and William Maddux found that time spent living abroad increases creativity. The theory is that living abroad exposes individuals to diverse, multicultural experiences and these experiences contribute to the production of new ideas. A similar dynamic might explain why even MacArthur Fellows born in the United States are highly mobile.

We aspire to have the MacArthur Fellows represent American creativity in all its dimensions. Geography is an important aspect of that diversity, and it is revealing not just about the Fellows but about the movement of creative people generally. We strongly believe that creativity exists everywhere, and one of our continuing goals will be to recognize and inspire others to embrace that creativity, in all of its many manifestations, both inside and outside traditional, expected locations.

Cecilia Conrad is the Vice President of the MacArthur Fellows Program. The data behind this project is available here.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: August 28

1. New Orleans is at the heart of a new HIV epidemic, and only massive health system reform can remedy the situation.

By Jessica Wapner in Aeon

2. From dismantling Syria’s chemical arsenal to hunting down Joseph Kony, America’s military missions abroad far outlast the public’s attention span.

By Kate Brannen in Foreign Policy

3. To look beyond stereotypes and understand the programs and interventions that improve life for young men of color, the U.S. Department of Education invited them to a “Data Jam.”

By Charley Locke in EdSurge

4. Taking a page from silicon valley, incubators for restaurateurs can help get new ideas on the plate.

By Allison Aubrey at National Public Radio

5. So the homeless can work, worship, and transition to normal life, cities should offer safe, flexible storage options.

By Kriston Capps in Citylab

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME interactive

Inside the Secrets of Hollywood’s Calendar

Superheroes save June. Princesses reign in May. And Nazis usually invade in February. Here's a visual guide to strange patterns that populate the big screen

What do you call a thong-clad scientist paired with a chainsaw-toting cheerleader? Answer: the perfect summer movie.

It’s no secret that the movies follow an unofficial calendar: Summer is for action heroes and explosions, while dark themes and delicate plots visit in the winter, readying for the Oscars. But what about some of the less familiar patterns that popular Hollywood seasons? To study the secrets of the cinema calendar, TIME gathered data on the 8,298 movies in IMDB that made at least $100,000 in inflation-adjusted dollars, all the way back to 1913. By correlating the keywords for each movie to the month that it was released, we were able to find highly seasonal topics for each month of the year.

For all the highs and lows of the Hollywood calendar, check out this chart.

Some of the more surprising highlights: People are saddest in January. The tag “melancholy” is most popular in the beginning of the year. See “Sideways” and “The Hours.” February is a great month for World War II. “Nazis” too. Drug lords come out in the summer. August to be specific. In fact, the second-highest grossing movie of the moment is Lucy, in which a woman (Scarlet Johansson) works as a mule for a Korean drug kingpin.December is lethal for main characters. That’s when they die most often. See “Titanic.”

Methodology

The keywords on IMDB are submitted by users so the data is not perfectly consistent, but across thousands of movies one sees clear and sensible pattern. Each keyword was measured according to the total number of movies it appeared in each month of the calendar year, regardless of which year the movie appeared. These figures where then converted to percentages according to the keyword’s total volume. Since movies come out in different volumes in different months–October is a particularly popular type to release a film regardless of topic, for example–the data was then normalized according to the total number of films released in a given month.

TIME privacy

How to Take Control of Your Personal Data

privacy
Getty Images

Just how much data is there about you online?

Before you answer that, think about the slew of social media networks, retailers, insurance providers, fitness tracking services and other digital services you’ve interacted with in your lifetime.

Companies mine the tracks we leave as we browse the Internet, then sell the data to targeted marketing firms and customers. The digital data marketing industry, including companies generating revenue from online ads and selling user data, was worth $62 billion in 2012, according to a 2013 study by the Data-Driven Marketing Institute.

Yet you and I, the users who actually create this data, have little to no control over what it’s used for. Having control over our data means being able to view it in its entirety whenever we want (instead of having to file a formal request with an energy provider, for instance) and to decide if, when and how companies may use it.

“The mere fact that the data is in the cloud puts it at least one or two steps from you having control,” says Lee Tien, senior staff attorney of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit digital rights organization. “If you lose access to the Internet, you lose access to your data.” Ideally, Tien says, you would possess a complete copy of your data from all the services you use, downloaded to your computer — and in a perfect world, you’re the only who would have it.

New services are getting on board with that idea. From a vault for your most sensitive documents to a private browser that could one day allow you to sell your data yourself, the services below can help you reclaim control over your digital self.

Your personal encrypted cloud service

Personal is a highly encrypted cloud storage service where users are the only ones with the key necessary to decrypt their data. You can manually upload documents as well as email passwords, account numbers and addresses. Partner service Fillit can automatically save data fields to your cloud. For example, if you’re shopping for car insurance, once you fill out one application, Fillit can auto-populate others.

A link between Personal and the Department of Education allows you to import all data fields from your FAFSA application and National Student Loan records. You can also import data from Facebook and LinkedIn. In the future, says Personal’s chief policy officer Josh Galper, federal health records will also be available for import, letting you manage and share your medical history with doctors or insurance providers as you see fit.

If you want to share data with a trusted friend (for example, so that your spouse can fill in a mortgage application), you can send a key to decrypt and download a particular piece of info from your vault. You can also delete your account at any time, wiping out your virtual vault but keeping everything you’d downloaded.

Personal doesn’t store your log-in details, and since each vault is encrypted, the company itself cannot view the stored data. However, the weak link in the security chain could be devastating if broken. A Personal password that gets hacked due to lax personal security or the theft of a device that’s still logged in could give thieves access to — well, everything, ever.

Price: $29.99/year or $2.99/month with a 30-day free trial

Download social media posts to one secure location

SocialSafe saves a copy of all your social media posts and photos to a local hard drive. Currently supporting seven networks, including LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, it’s searchable across all accounts for specific content such as particular friends or posts about an event. Analytics tools let you see highlights such as most popular photos and which days you’ve posted the most, over any period from a day to lifetime.

Founder Julian Ranger says that the company has no access to user data at all. “We have no servers, no central database that could be a target of a hack,” he says. Instead, users download the SocialSafe software, which connects with each account to directly download your data.

SocialSafe will become even more useful as other types of providers join its ranks. Ranger says that integration with fitness, financial and retail outlets is in the pipeline, and the coming months will see the inclusion of location check-ins, Spotify listening habits and data on the so-called quantified self (diet, fitness and sleep habits). This will allow you to obtain copies of data that’s hitherto been disparately held, and, as Ranger says, gain insight into your own behavior.

Price: $6.99/year (four linked accounts) to $27.99/year (20 linked accounts) with a 30-day free trial

Centralize your bills safely

Bill fetcher FileThis, which will be out of beta testing this year and is expected to support 1,000 services by 2015, connects with utility and financial providers to import bills and statements to your local hard drive or a cloud service like uber-secure service Personal. FileThis supports major banks, Paypal, Verizon, American Express and many energy and water companies.

Once you’ve fetched the documents you need, FileThis can recognize fields (dates, keywords and account numbers) and file various types of statements for easy searching. For example, a National Grid statement would be put in a Utilities folder, then tagged with keywords such as “Gas & Electric” and “Invoice.”

Because FileThis uses bank-level encryption standards and encrypts your log-in details as soon as they’re entered, linking accounts by giving FileThis usernames and passwords should be as secure as online banking. Documents aren’t stored on its servers but simply pass through, encrypted, so hacker breaches should not give access to your data.

Price: Free when linked to six accounts; $2/month or $20/year for up to 12 accounts; or $5/month or $50/year for up to 30 accounts

Collect and protect your browser history

The Meeco browser takes privacy one step further: It stores and encrypts your search history and so-called rich personal data (such as location, age or other info mined by website cookies) in a personal cloud, much like Personal’s model, so that data brokers can’t sell or use the data for advertising. Instead, what you do on the Internet is visible only to you. The idea is that eventually, you can allow particular companies access to particular data about you in exchange for monetary compensation.

The Meeco browser also keeps your web surfing more private by breaking down your history into individual sessions, making it much harder for websites to know who you are and where you’ve been.

Price: Free, currently in beta testing at meeco.me

Download your medical and utility records

In 2010, the U.S. government launched the Blue Button initiative to allow individuals (initially veterans) to download healthcare records. Now many more providers, including labs and pharmacies, allow patients to download medical histories and share them with hospitals, doctors and health insurance companies.

Green Button is the project’s equivalent for energy companies. At the time of posting, 67 energy companies covering 43 million households were participating, allowing customers to download their usage history.

Seeing profit in privacy

What happens if a company’s servers are hacked or a visionary startup that puts privacy first gets bought, as WhatsApp and Instagram were, by a tech giant with a more lax view on user data?

“If the encryption technology is perfectly implemented, then a data breach would be less of an issue — and even if the company is sold, its new owner should still not be able to access user data,” says EFF’s Tien. “But if tech isn’t guaranteed, then what matters is what the terms and conditions say.”

Still, there’s plenty of incentive for companies to get it right. Personal, SocialSafe and Meeco are capitalizing on today’s high concern about online privacy. In the wake of unfolding revelations of mass surveillance, privacy breaches and data losses, companies that don’t respect privacy wind up with a bad rep and lose customers.

Take Personal: The bulk of its revenue is intended to come from companies, such as the businesses that pay for information on users who auto-fill online forms using the service. The for-pay model seems to assuage customers’ privacy concerns. “[In its early stages], people wanted to pay to subscribe to the service, so that they know they’re not the product,” says Personal’s Galper.

At the end of the day, as EFF’s Tien says, “Everything is all about economics.” If a company can turn a profit by tapping into a burgeoning need for privacy, it’s more likely to release a privacy-friendly product. And as Americans grow savvier about online privacy, so will the demand for services whose business models respect user data — and our right to its control.

This article was written by Natasha Stokes and originally appeared on Techlicious.

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TIME Data

Meet the Man Who Turned NYC Into His Own Lab

Steven Koonin, under secretary for science at the U.S. Department of Energy, listens during the 2011 CERAWEEK conference in Houston on March 11, 2011.
Steven Koonin, under secretary for science at the U.S. Department of Energy, listens during the 2011 CERAWEEK conference in Houston on March 11, 2011. Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images

Using big data to make a difference

In the mornings, Steven Koonin often dons a light blue shirt and khaki suit jacket, walks out of his apartment above Manhattan’s chic Washington Square park and heads for the subway. As he beelines down the sidewalk, the West Village buildings burp up black clouds of smoke as their boilers are fired on. At Sixth Avenue, an express bus screeches to the curb and blocks the pedestrian crosswalk. And as Koonin sits in the subway, he notices some of the signs are badly placed. “Can we fix this?” he wonders. He gets off at Brooklyn’s Jay Street-Metrotech station and rides an elevator to the 19th floor of a commanding building perched high above his native city. Then he gets to work.

Koonin is the director of New York University’s Center for Urban Science and Progress (CUSP), which is to say, he is the big data guru of New York City. He’s been given a lot of cash, millions of data points and a broad mandate by the city of New York: make it better. No big data project of this scale has been attempted before, and that’s because the tools never existed, until now. “There’s an enormous amount of data out there,” Koonin says with the vestiges of a Brooklyn accent. “If we can use the data to understand what’s going on in cities, we can improve them in a rational way.”

CUSP is both a research laboratory and a school. This year, it will have more than 60 students and 8 full-time faculty members. The students collaborate with the faculty and the city on big projects while they work toward either a Master of Science degree or an educational certificate. About a quarter of students this year will have social science degrees, another quarter each are engineers or scientists by training, and the rest will hail from fields as miscellaneous as film and fashion design. Their collective challenge is to turn numbers, spreadsheets, graphs and charts into a model that makes New York City work faster, cleaner, and more efficiently.

The program is already starting to make policy recommendations to the city, and as the institute attracts more talent, it will begin to play an important role in everything from easing Manhattan’s nasty rush hour traffic congestion, advising on prekindergarten school placement, cutting back on city pollution and helping businesses decide where best to open a franchise. “CUSP is able to work on those projects and take it to a deeper level of making more vetted recommendations,” says Nicholas O’Brien, the chief of staff in the Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics. “They bridge the gap between city data and creating actionable policy for city agencies.”

Koonin grew up in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn and in the late 1960s attended the prestigious Stuyvesant High School, where he and his friends once tried to use an old IBM computer (“it clunked along and had less power than your phone,” he says) to try and figure out the shortest time a subway rider could visit every single city stop on one fare. Koonin would go to the MTA headquarters to copy down timetables and input them into the computer.

Forty years later, Koonin has more data than he knows how to use. There are figures for household water consumption, purchases of goods, noise levels, taxi ridership, nutrition, traffic levels, restaurant inspections, parking violations and public park use; subway ridership, bus deployment, boiler lifespans, recycling rates, reservoir levels, street pedestrian counts; granular demographic breakdowns, household income, building permits, epidemic monitoring, toxin emissions, and on, and on and on. The challenge is making sense out of it, and that’s where CUSP comes in.

“The city has very little time to stand back and ask itself, ‘what are the patterns here?’” Koonin says. “That’s because they’re up to their asses in alligators, as you almost always are in government.”

Koonin would know. After receiving a Ph.D from MIT, he taught as a theoretical physics professor at Caltech before eventually working for BP and then the Obama administration. As Undersecretary of Energy for Science in the Obama administration, he was frustrated by the glacial progress on energy policy. To get things done, Koonin concluded, he needed a novel approach. “I came up with this notion of, ‘I’m going to go instrument a city as a scientist would,’” he says. In April 2012, he was announced director of the newly created CUSP program to make New York a living laboratory for urban improvement. Since then, Koonin has overseen a rapidly growing operation as it dances between 13 city agencies, the Metropolitan Transit Authority, the mayor’s office, and NYU, taking chunks of data and imagining actionable city policy.

CUSP’s temporary location (before it moves into the retrofitted Metropolitan Transit Authority headquarters) is an eclectic mix of high-tech and deep retro. The foyer, with firm orange chairs and dull wood paneling, looks like an Ikea designer recreated a 1970’s-era therapists’ office, but inside, two robots patrol the halls wielding touchscreens. A glass-enclosed conference room has 60 high-resolution monitors that on one Wednesday displayed the city’s taxi pick-up and drop-off data from the evening of May 1, and hundreds of teal and black taxi icons are scattered around a detailed digital map of Manhattan. In Koonin’s impressive corner office with magisterial vistas of downtown Brooklyn, he keeps a classic slate blackboard next to a keyboard. He can fluidly play “You Go To My Head,” the J. Fred Coots jazz standard, and “The Way You Look Tonight.”

“My dream is to be a lounge pianist,” Koonin the data-meister says drolly.

Like a doctor holding a prodigious stethoscope to New York City’s skyscrapers, Koonin needs to give the city a thorough physical before he can write a prescription. “The city has a pulse, it has a rhythm. It happens every day. There’s a characteristic pattern in the rise of economic activity, energy use, water use, taxi rides, et cetera,” Koonin says. “Can we measure the physiology of the city in its various dimensions? And define what normal is? What’s normal for a weekday, what’s normal for a weekend?”

“Then you can start to look for abnormalities,” he continues. “If subway ridership was low, was that correlated with the weather? When subway ridership is low, is taxi ridership high? You get a sense of what’s connected to what in the city. Can we look for anomalies, precursors of things? Epidemics, economic slowdown. So measuring the pulse of the city is one of the big things we’re after.”

CUSP is creating a system to measure microbiological samples from the city’s sewage system, using genomic technology to learn more about people’s nutrition and disease based on their waste. Do certain neighborhoods need better nutritional or hygienic practices? Another project involves a camera fixed to the roof of CUSP headquarters that can see anonymized data of when people’s lights turn on and off and monitor energy usage. When do people go to sleep? How regular are people’s sleeping hours? The institute is also working out a way to help the city’s Parks Department measure how many people use city parks, and what they do in them. (Hint: it could involve lots of infrared video.) The city could then much more intelligently design its public spaces.

“This is opening the door to the possibility that we would very accurately and very comprehensively understand how people would use our public spaces,” says Jacqueline Lu, director of analytics at the Parks Department.

The city’s 8.3 million-strong crowds, packed together on the subway like brightly colored gumballs or streaming through the streets like grains of sand blown by the wind, will be the ultimate beneficiaries of Koonin’s work. On his morning commute, he notes how the city has changed since he was a kid coming up in the public schools. “Everyday it’s really interesting to look at the crowds and see how they interact with one another,” he says. “The city works better. The trains are pretty much on time. So it’s pretty good.”

TIME Video Games

Nintendo’s ‘Wii U to Wii U’ Transfer Feature Doesn’t Go Far Enough

Nintendo adds a system-to-system transfer option, but Wii U owners still can't backup save files or move data around conveniently.

I’m not sure it’s the feature that’ll motivate fence-sitters off their palisades to buy one, but if you already own a Wii U — or better still, two — the latest system update finally adds the option to run a full system transfer, Wii U to Wii U.

To be clear, you’re already able to transfer data off the Wii U, you just can’t back it up. Does that sound oxymoronic? Let me explain.

Wii U data can only exist in one place, so you either have it on the Wii U’s internal flash or an external USB storage device, but never in both places at once. If you brick your Wii U and your save files live on an external storage device, then you buy or receive a replacement Wii U, you’ve had no way of recovering those files. Making matters worse, Nintendo doesn’t offer cloud saves, so you could argue the Wii U is inferior to the original Nintendo Entertainment System (which in some cases allowed you to save straight to the cartridge) as well as most systems that’ve come after it.

Nintendo’s latest Wii U system update, out yesterday, goes some way toward rectifying this deficit, but the restrictions are pretty onerous. For starters, you’ll need the source Wii U alive and kicking and running the same system software version as the destination Wii U. From there, you’re in essence running an all-or-nothing clone operation: the source Wii U transfers “any users, Nintendo Network IDs, save data, and digital content” to the target Wii U, then wipes the source Wii U clean.

That’s helpful if you own a vanilla Wii U, say, and want to transition to the annual custom-painted limited edition. But we’re probably talking about a handful of hardcore Nintendophiles. Who wants to own two otherwise identical Wii Us? And even then, you’re not backing anything up, you’re just moving it from one system to another.

It’s a shame, because what I’d wager Wii U owners really want — or at least what I do — is a way to back up those Wii U save files, be it to the cloud or an external storage device. Microsoft and Sony have supported save file duplication to external storage as well as cloud save-file backups for years. Nintendo’s system update is arguably helpful for a tiny fraction of Nintendo’s audience, in other words, but not the backup/transfer feature Wii U owners have long deserved.

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