Augustin Chaintreau Wins CAREER Award, Rising Star Award

Oct 01 2013 | By Holly Evarts

Augustin Chaintreau, assistant professor of computer science, is on a roll. He recently won a prestigious National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER Award for his Banalytics research project that demonstrates how information about a consumer's behavior, however mundane, can be used with tremendous values and risks to the individual. One of the NSF’s highest honors for exceptional junior faculty, the CAREER Award will support his work with a $500,000 five-year grant. In addition, Chaintreau has been awarded the distinguished 2013 ACM (Association for Computing Machinery) SIGMETRICS Rising Star Researcher Award for his significant contributions to the analysis of emerging distributed digital and social networking systems.

Chaintreau's Banalytics project demonstrates how information about a consumer's behavior, however mundane, can be used with tremendous values and risks to the individual.

”This is truly a double honor,” says Chaintreau, who also is a member of the Institute for Data Sciences and Engineering’s New Media Center. “My earlier work has now received its highest recognition. And being awarded this prominent NSF CAREER grant will accelerate my lab's research at a time when reconciling the rapid progress in big data with personal privacy has never been so critical. This is so gratifying!”

With more and more companies using customer data as a central component of their business plans, the world is becoming ever more dependent on researchers and policy makers who can access individuals’ personal data. “Today, customer data is what makes a company profitable. Tomorrow, sharing our personal data will offer ways to improve our lives and advance society. So how,” Chaintreau asks, “do we reconcile this progress in big data with privacy? This is a problem that’s getting worse every day, especially now that personal data and its value for national security has become such a controversial—and important—issue.”

Modern-day analytics, defined by Chaintreau as the “science of identifying and exploiting individual types and trends,” currently run behind closed doors—you cannot control how companies like Facebook or Google use and market user data. “The first step,” he notes, “is to prove you can perform analytics with data transparency, where personal information is controlled by individuals who can then decide what they want to share—or not.” His research is targeted at finding alternatives that will help people manage their personal data in an easier, more transparent way. Data transparency, he explains, would make big data socially more efficient—“but once you prove it’s technically feasible, you face the real question of how can we overcome adoption barriers so that the web as we know it will evolve towards better transparency?”

“Privacy and economics are really intertwined,” he continues. “Users and companies will not work together if the solution handles one well at the expense of the other. Enabling users to effectively own their data and trade them with companies raises all kinds of technical, economic, and societal challenges. Answering that question will decide if the mobile web we inhabit in 10 years is a hospitable and prosperous place, a means of unprecedented surveillance, or a vast collection of fiefs guarded by metal doors. Researchers, app developers, and regulators, all are making progress, but nobody has yet gotten the path to a transparent web completely right. That's what we are trying to do.”

Along with building behavioral analytics that put users in control, Chaintreau plans to create a new course for both engineering and journalism students on personal data management. “Some of the most innovative work measuring how companies handle personal data come not from the conferences I attend, but from the newspapers and blogs we all read,” Chaintreau says. “At Columbia, I am very fortunate because we can bring together the best of computer science and journalism. In fact, we are now working on launching a pilot class in particular for the dual MS degree program on how to inform society about the risks and values of personal data.”

It is getting increasingly more important for individuals to understand the value of their data.

“In 10 years all students should understand the value of information in our evolving society,” he adds. “This is really a civic responsibility—we need good technologists and, just as importantly, good journalists who are truly tomorrow’s data first-responders to improve how citizens make critical choices. Surrendering our data for some free services, for instance, is not a good option for critical areas like health and energy. I hope that my research will shape a different future for the mobile web.”