Innovation Ecosystem/Opinion

How do you argue with an algorithm?

Particularly when the corporate algorithm may be dead wrong about predicting your behavior, or determining what is the best choice for your own health care

Photo by Juan Espinoza

At the Nov. 14 Childhood Lead Action Project celebration. From left, CLAP Board Chair Jocelyne de Gouvernain, award winners Maria Betancur and Richard Asinof, and Laura Brion, executive director of CLAP.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 11/18/19
The celebration of 27 years by the Childhood Lead Action Project, and its 2019 community hero awards, is an example of bottom-up innovation that disrupts the status quo in Rhode Island.
When will The Boston Globe convene a conference that features the proponents of bottom-up innovation in Rhode Island, instead of featuring the corporate and legislative titans? Would CommerceRI be willing to hire consultant Bruce Katz of New Localism to conduct a study on the lifetime economic and educational impacts of childhood lead poisoning in Rhode Island? What are the potential ramifications of health systems sharing patient data on cloud platforms managed by Google and Amazon? When will Gov. Raimondo agree to meet with representatives of the group, Sunrise, to discuss the potential to create a Green New Deal for Rhode Island? What is the current patient census of nursing homes and skilled nursing facilities in Rhode Island?
On Monday, Nov. 18, Dr. Annie DeGroot, co-founder, CEO and CSO at EpiVax, Inc., one of Rhode Island’s pioneering biotech firms, will be a featured panelist at Women’s Entrepreneurship Day highlighting female founders who are disrupting the health tech industry.
Other featured speakers will be Jeanne Pinder, founder and CEO of ClearHealthCosts, a journalism startup; Nina Tandon, CEO and co-founder of EpiBone, the world’s first company growing living human bones for skeletal reconstruction; Elina Berglund, CEO and co-founder of Natural Cycles; Carla Caramat, CEO and co-founder of Dentists on Demand; and Stacy Blain, co-founder and CSO of Concarlo Holdings.
At the same time, recent research undertaken by EpiVax on Tregitopes has been published, including a study on the “Therapeutic administration of Tregitope-Human Albumin Fusion with Insulin Peptides to promote Antigen-Specific Adaptive Tolerance Induction.”
The leadership position of EpiVax in the biotech field continues to attract national and international attention.

PAWTUCKET – In our personal lives, we all make choices, even if we are not conscious of making those choices. What to eat for breakfast; what clothes to wear each day; what tweets to respond on Twitter; what we decide to watch – or not watch – on TV, the route we take when we go to work. Call it the narrative of our daily lives, the patterns of convenience we fall into.

In attempting to stitch our lives together, we tend to fall back into familiar patterns of behavior, even if they are unhealthy ones, because they are known, predictable and comfortable. Changing habits can be difficult and disruptive.

The same is true for the news media: in the choices they [we] make about what is news; in the events they [we] cover; in the narrative they [we] create; and where the TV cameras are assigned. Murder, mayhem, tragedy, fires, school shootings and outrage often rule the day and night of our 24/7 news flow.

More and more each day, the narrative of news is being controlled by private equity financiers and hedge funds, which squeeze and wring profits from consolidated news platforms. Witness the most recent merger of Gannett with GateHouse, with its promise to cut the workforce of reporters in order to manage its large debt load. The continuing decline of The Providence Journal, which will be part of the new newspaper conglomerate, is a symptom of this disease of corporate greed.

The question is: Where can you find a better, more consistent, more accurate, in-depth local source of news? The digital news platform of ConvergenceRI, now in its seventh year, which received the 2019 media award from the Childhood Lead Action Project on Thursday, Nov. 14, for its coverage of efforts to prevent and eliminate lead poisoning in Rhode Island, is one good answer.

As the director of a large physician group practice recently wrote: “What I am grateful for is your dogged, honest reporting.”

And, as the director of a community agency, who couldn’t attend the awards ceremony, wrote: “I sure hope you know how valued you are!”

The really big news
The big news this week was the beginning of the impeachment hearings of President Donald Trump, conducted by the U.S. House of Representatives, only the fourth time in our nation’s history that impeachment of the President has been considered. Did you make the time to watch [or listen] to the hearings?

The other really big news, a story that traveled well below the radar screen, was the announcement by Google that they were collaborating with Ascension Health, a national health care system, in transferring and managing some 50 million patients’ health records to the Google cloud platform. The move occurred despite previous concerns about how Google apparently violated privacy rights under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA.

Earlier this month, Google had announced a deal to acquire the personal fitness tracker Fitbit for some $2 billion.

Right before our eyes, in plain sight, the scenario described by Shoshana Zuboff in her book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, is coming to fruition, in which firms such as Google “acquire ever-more predictive behavioral data …in order to nudge, coax, tune, and herd behavior toward profitable outcomes,” in order to predict and shape our behavior as a large-scale enterprise.

It is hard enough to advocate for loved ones within the current system, to argue with doctors or nurses concerning unnecessary tests and treatments, or for those that you believe are critical, and for a patient's voice to be heard when an occupational therapist puts on a neck brace four sizes too small. But, as the headline in this story asks: How do you argue with an algorithm?

Whose side are you on?
I did not attend the event hosted by The Boston Globe, in which reporter Dan McGowan served as moderator, asking questions of four grand poobahs, Brown University President Christina Paxson, Lifespan President and CEO Dr. Tim Babineau, Rhode Island College President Frank Sanchez, and R.I. Gov. Gina Raimondo, to talk about their vision of the future of Rhode Island.

Instead, I was in Pawtucket that evening to receive the 2019 media award from the Childhood Lead Action Project, for my continuing coverage of the efforts to prevent and to eliminate childhood lead poisoning in Rhode Island. The other award winners were Sen. Jack Reed and Maria Cristina Betancur. There were no TV cameras in attendance.

The psychic distance between the two competing events illustrated the growing chasm between those two narratives – what I will call the difference between bottom-up and top-down innovation, illustrating the inequity in wealth and health and prosperity that divides our nation.

The gathering in Pawtucket captured the continued success of a grassroots community group in seeking to prevent and eliminate childhood lead poisoning in Rhode Island, a preventable, persistent scourge that research shows is directly tied to poor performance by students, a preponderance of behavioral and mental health issues, and violence. In particular, the recent efforts have focused on improving municipal enforcement of housing codes related to lead in housing in Pawtucket and in Central Falls.

Ask yourself these questions: Why are there so many special education students in Providence, as high as 30 percent of the total student population at Hope High School?  Is it related to the lifelong neurological damages as a result of childhood lead poisoning?

What is the extra cost burden of educating those students, compared with getting rid of the lead paint in unsafe housing?

Could Bruce Katz, the co-founder of New Localism, the consulting group recently hired by CommerceRI to provide an update on the innovation economy in Rhode Island, be tasked with doing an economic analysis of the economic costs of childhood lead poisoning, a toxin that causes a lifetime of neurological damages, on the future workforce in Rhode Island?

Childhood lead poisoning is symptomatic of the larger housing crisis that is afflicting Rhode Island, because dilapidated, older housing is still a major source of contamination from lead paint.

The lack of media coverage is symptomatic, too, of the willing, active participation of the news media in promoting the top-down corporate view of the world.

Surprise, surprise, surprise
Young activists from the Sunrise movement disrupted The Boston Globe event, singing and chanting, challenging the validity of the much-ballyhooed “conversation” about the state’s future.

“It is disgraceful for you to talk about the future of Rhode Island and not mention climate change,” said one young protester, Racheal Baker, when handed the microphone to ask one question of the governor, in a compromise brokered by McGowan and the Governor – as if one question on the threat of climate change was all that there was time for on the agenda, and that would be “fair,” according to McGowan, and then the big wigs could resume their “very important” conversation, having successfully dismissed the youthful protesters in condescending fashion.

“As young people, we are afraid of the future in this state,” Baker continued. “The climate crisis is threatening our homes and our health. The institutions we have in place are failing us. We need every sector of society, from universities to hospitals, to mobilize on this crisis. Gov. Raimondo, what will you do? Will you sign a Green New Deal?”

Disrupting the status quo
In the back and forth that followed, it appeared that Gov. Raimondo misrepresented – or prevaricated, take your choice – about her position on taking corporate funds, as detailed in the story by Tim Faulkner of ecoRI News. [Why does the Governor feel the need to misrepresent her campaign fundraising?]

Her position, in many ways, was perhaps no different than those loyal Republican elected officials who have insisted on defending President Trump by supporting his systematic lies about his blatant attempt to seek foreign help in the 2020 Presidential election, illegally holding up aid appropriated by Congress as a way of extorting such behavior by Ukraine’s new president.

But there is a deeper, systemic problem related to the way that the grand poobahs seek to behave in public and to control the conversation. Raimondo, for instance, had consistently refused to meet with representatives of Sunrise, despite apparent numerous requests.

ConvergenceRI can sympathize; for more than four years, the Governor has refused to it down and talk with me, one-on-one, in an interview, despite agreeing to such an interview and shaking hands with me on it. What is the Governor afraid of?

[For those who might dismiss the protesters as rude, obnoxious or ineffectual, it would be helpful to remember that similar sign-waving protests by citizens against the proposed Invenergy power plant in Burrillville helped turn the tide, resulting in the state rejecting the need for such a plant.]

Brown University apparently has a similar issue of trying to control the flow of information. Scheduled interviews by ConvergenceRI with both Dean Jack Elias at the Alpert Medical School and Dean Bess Marcus at the School of Public Health were unceremoniously cancelled at the last moment, apparently on orders by the Brown communications department. What is Brown University afraid of?

Covering bottom-up innovation
On Wednesday night, Nov. 13, I stopped by the 50-year anniversary celebration of West Elmwood Housing in the West End, a community development corporation that has won a national health equity award in 2018 from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation for its work on the Sankofa Initiative. A few years back, I had invited Dan McGowan, when he was a reporter with WPRI, to take a walking tour of the West End with me and learn more about the Sankofa initiative. McGowan never responded.

This week, Sen. Jack Reed was one of the 2019 honorees at the Childhood Lead Action Project gathering, but despite a short news item in Ted Nesi’s Saturday column about Reed’s electability, there was no mention of the award.

The disliked fact is that such examples of bottom-up, community-led innovation rarely get covered or translated into political news. Why is that?

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