Dear statisticians: Please start using your powers for good not evil

And here I waste all my time predicting outbreaks of violence, when I could be doing this:

As Pole’s computers crawled through the data, he was able to identify about 25 products that, when analyzed together, allowed him to assign each shopper a “pregnancy prediction” score. More important, he could also estimate her due date to within a small window, so Target could send coupons timed to very specific stages of her pregnancy.

…About a year after Pole created his pregnancy-prediction model, a man walked into a Target outside Minneapolis and demanded to see the manager. He was clutching coupons that had been sent to his daughter, and he was angry…

“My daughter got this in the mail!” he said. “She’s still in high school, and you’re sending her coupons for baby clothes and cribs? Are you trying to encourage her to get pregnant?”

The manager didn’t have any idea what the man was talking about. He looked at the mailer. Sure enough, it was addressed to the man’s daughter and contained advertisements for maternity clothing, nursery furniture and pictures of smiling infants. The manager apologized and then called a few days later to apologize again.

On the phone, though, the father was somewhat abashed. “I had a talk with my daughter,” he said. “It turns out there’s been some activities in my house I haven’t been completely aware of. She’s due in August. I owe you an apology.”

Actually, sir, I don’t think you do.

Full article. h/t @justinwolfers and Forbes

10 thoughts on “Dear statisticians: Please start using your powers for good not evil

  1. I am very very sceptical about whether the data mining algorithm was *all that* much more sophisticated than “Has she bought a pregnancy test kit?”

  2. I’d hardly call this evil. Maybe creepy. I like that Netflix tells what DVD’s I’ll like, I like that Amazon tells me what books might interest me, I like that Hulu shows me ads that are relevant to me. At what point does ad targeting and consumer tracking move from beneficial to a privacy invasion? The above example seems to cross the line, but I think reasonable people could disagree.

  3. @dsquared – well, it has to be more sophisticated than a pregnancy test or they’d get much more false positives, including from people unsuccessfully trying to get pregnant who would probably not take this very kindly.
    Considering that people miscarry, that algorithms fail etc. this clearly crosses the line because – as opposed to an Amazon book recommendation – getting pregnancy oriented ads can actually by emotionally painful. (Well, once amazon send me an e-mail recommending a new Bill O’Reilly book, so…)

    In this case at least it turned out to be a good thing, though. At least the kid will get prenatal care – and hopefully some measure of support from her family – now.

  4. Someone who buys a baby crib at Target is already doing so in plain sight of potentially tens or hundreds of people, possibly including friends, acquaintances, or even local enemies. (This is inevitable unless we conduct all of our outside-the-home business in disguise or in burkas.) So given that her household purchases are already visible to lots of real live human beings, how is it worse if a large computer somewhere whirs a bit and then spits out some free coupons to let her buy products that she needs at a cheaper price?

  5. Regular reader of your blog, but this post reeks of Upper West Side pretentiousness, and you haven’t even started at Columbia yet.

  6. Ack, sorry for double post (and double “people”). The correct type of insurance is life, not health. The WSJ article is well worth reading.

  7. This is a little creepy, but at least people who might actually want the coupons will be getting them. At our local grocery store we regularly get coupons for diapers and beer (at the same time). We still don’t know what we bought to make them believe we need diapers…