The ‘Thanksgiving Effect’ and the Creepy Power of Phone Data – ROBBIE GONZALEZ SCIENCE 05.31.18 02:29 PM

Researchers used smartphone-location data and polling results to peer into millions of people’s Thanksgiving dinners.

Robert Finken/Getty Images

If you didn’t know it before the Cambridge Analytica debacle, you do now: Your digital habits are dual-use data. One company might analyze them to recommend you TV shows, while another might try to leverage them to influence an election. The first scenario you might be OK with, the other not so much.

So, knowing what you know now, ask yourself how you feel about this: Your personal data, it seems, can also be used to infer how your politics affect your personal life, including things like the time you spend with your family during the holidays.

For a study published in this week’s issue of Science, UCLA economist Keith Chen and Washington State University economist Ryne Rohla combined smartphone-location data from more than 10 million Americans with precinct-level election results to quantify the impact of partisanship and political advertising on Thanksgiving dinners in 2016, on the heels of the presidential election. Among their findings: Democrats shortened their visits to Republican households by between 20 and 40 minutes; Republicans cut their time with Democratic hosts by 50 to 70 min; and mismatched families from areas with high political ad exposure spent even less time together.

The researchers’ results might not surprise you (2016’s election reportedly led many people to cut their Thanksgivings plans short), but their methods might: The smartphone data came from SafeGraph, a company that uses geolocation data from apps on your phone to maintain anonymized geospatial datasets for more than 10 million US smartphones. These data consist of “pings,” which give the locations of individual smartphones at specific moments in time. For their study, the researchers analyzed some 21 billion pings from November 2016 and 4.5 billion from November 2015.

You might be thinking: OK, that’s one kind of data, but it’s creepy to think that researchers could match my phone’s location with my political affiliation. Who the hell has that data? That’s where the election results come in. Chen and Rohla collected precinct-level polling data—the highest-resolution available—through internet scraping and by contacting secretaries of state, boards of election, and county clerks. Merging the two datasets was as simple as inferring the precinct and census block of each smartphone user’s home based on the location of pings logged between 1:00 am and 4:00 am in the weeks before Thanksgiving. People who live in the same precinct tend to vote for the same candidate. “So it turns out where your smartphone spends its time between 1:00 and 4:00 in the morning correlates pretty closely with who you voted for in the 2016 election,” says Chen. He and Rohla used the same method to determine where people traveled on Thanksgiving day.

With their merged data sets, the researchers were able to control for geographic and demographic factors. By comparing similar families to each other, Chen and Rohla showed that dinners attended by residents from opposing-party precincts in 2016 were 30 to 50 minutes shorter than same-party get-togethers. They were also able to compare behavior between years: In 2015, mismatched families still tended to spend less time together than matched ones, but the effect was more pronounced in 2016. And that was especially true when travelers and hosts hailed from media markets with lots of political television ads.

In short: It’s astonishing what you can infer about personal relationships from just a few datasets.

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How Western Anticorruption Policy Is Failing Ukraine – By Adrian Karatnycky and Alexander J. Motyl May 29, 2018

Western aid programs designed to attack corruption in Ukraine are failing. Instead of acknowledging the significant degree to which Ukraine has changed for the better, Western-backed approaches misrepresent ongoing reforms as woefully inadequate. In so doing, they discredit the reforms, polarizing the country’s elites, promoting mass mobilization, encouraging left- and right-wing populism, weakening Ukraine at a time of war and Russian occupation, and contributing to the country’s instability.

Ukraine is a pivotal country on the frontline of an aggressive Russian state. Its success in countering Russia is a crucial part of the West’s effort to contain and push back against President Vladimir Putin. But as a country under constant Russian pressure, Ukraine can benefit from a more comprehensive reform approach. More specifically, it needs a pragmatic anticorruption and reform policy, carefully designed to enable Ukraine to progress without reinforcing Russian efforts to undermine the state and create instability.


Ukraine is a pluralistic society with highly competitive democratic politics. Twice in its recent history it has seen months-long mass protests (once in 2004 and again in 2013–14). Its citizenry has demonstrated a high degree of grass-roots organization and activism in support of democracy and rule of law.

At the same time, as a legacy of its transition from communism, the country has inherited an oligarchic economic system, widespread corruption, massive tax evasion through a gray economy estimated at around 40 percent above the official GDP, weak protection of property rights and contracts, and largely dysfunctional courts. Not surprisingly, efforts to root out widespread corruption have been a long-standing policy priority of Western aid since independence in 1991. Progress in this area was negligible until 2014, when the Euromaidan revolution toppled then President Viktor Yanukovych and brought to power pro-Western and pro-reformist elites. That same year, businessman Petro Poroshenko, one of the principal financial backers of the protests, was elected president and created a largely reformist coalition government.

Western donors saw in the government’s mix of new and older faces the signs of political change and an opportunity to rapidly reform the country. To aid in this project, they funded a wide array of proxies in the form of anticorruption nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and public policy institutes with the aim of developing, lobbying, and speeding through legislation and institutional changes.

Initially, the new government and legislature pliantly implemented virtually every reform idea that was presented. Simultaneously, a team of reformers succeeded in making deep inroads into the major corruption schemes that had been in place for decades and had metastasized under the Yanukovych regime.

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This Case Could Be a Game Changer in Cities’ Lawsuits Against Big Oil – Adam Rogers May. 29, 2018 6:00 AM

Are courts the right place to decide who’s to blame?

chengwaidefeng/iStock /Getty Images Plus

This story was originally published by Wired and appears here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration. 

The city of Richmond, California, juts into the San Francisco Bay like the head of a rhinoceros looking west across the water, toward San Quentin State Prison and the tony towns north of the Golden Gate. It’s a low, industrial town, and 2,900 acres of it is an oil refinery.
Chevron is Richmond’s biggest employer, and through taxes contributes about a quarter of the city’s total budget. Chevron is also Richmond’s eternal nemesis. Industrial accidents are an ongoing issue. A fire at the refinery in 2012 sent 15,000 people to hospitals, resulting in a city lawsuit and a $5 million settlement. And in January Richmond joined six other California cities in suing oil companies for growing coastal threats related to climate change—primarily the sea level rise jeopardizing Richmond’s working coastline.
“We have 32 miles of shoreline on San Francisco bay, more than any other community, and a substantial amount of it is low-lying and subject to inundation,” says Tom Butt, Richmond’s mayor. “The root of this lawsuit and my biggest disappointment with these fossil fuel companies is that they’re all more interested in perpetuating themselves than they are in making a transition. They’re more interested in self-preservation than preserving the planet.”
In addition to the California cities’ various lawsuits, New York, Seattle, and municipalities in Colorado have all filed lawsuits against various combinations of oil companies since the summer of 2017. The suits are all at different stages; along with San Mateo, Richmond has been moved from state court to federal. Others have gone from federal back to state. On Thursday in a federal court in San Francisco, a judge heard a motion to dismiss from five fossil fuel companies, the defendants in the suit brought by San Francisco and Oakland. The same thing will happen in New York in June.
It’s a confusing landscape. The idea of cities using the courts as recourse in the fight against climate change is one that goes back at least to the 1990s, and the plaintiff side mapped out the detailed strategy just a few years ago. Now, in an era of federal deregulation and rising seas, these lawsuits feel increasingly urgent. The question is whether the courts will even see them as plausible.
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Stunning new Hurricane Maria death toll confirms Puerto Rico’s devastating losses after the storm – Alexia Fernández Campbell May 29, 2018, 9:13pm EDT

At least 4,600 people died as a result of Hurricane Maria, a study shows. The government’s official death toll is still 64.

Hurricane Maria left towns, including Caonillas, without power or cellphone coverage for months after Hurricane Maria made landfall on September. 20, 2017.
Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post via Getty Images

More than 4,600 Puerto Ricans may have died in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in large part due to delayed medical care, according to a new survey of people on the island collected and analyzed by researchers at Harvard and other institutions.

The study, published Tuesday in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that Hurricane Maria may be the deadliest natural disaster to hit US soil in 100 years, with a mortality rate twice as high as Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005. The only other US disaster on record with a higher death toll is the Galveston, Texas, hurricane of 1900, when somewhere between 6,000 and 12,000 people died.

The new estimate of 4,600 “excess deaths” occurring between September 20, the day Hurricane Maria made landfall on Puerto Rico, and December 31 stands in stark contrast to the government’s official count of 64, a gross underestimate that has remained unchanged for months. The new research also validates previous analyses of mortality data and reports from the ground by journalists and other researchers that found that the death toll was well over 1,000.

To come up with the new estimate, researchers surveyed some 3,300 randomly chosen households across Puerto Rico in January and February, asking them about deaths in the family between September 20 and December 31 and factors that may have contributed to each death. They also asked about damage to their homes, and whether they were displaced and had access to food, water, health care, electricity, and cellphones. (On average, households went 84 days without electricity, 68 days without water, and 41 days without cellphone coverage after the Category 4 storm hit.)

The researchers then compared the results with Puerto Rico’s official death statistics from the same time period in 2016. They found a 62 percent increase in the mortality rate in 2017, which added up to an estimated 4,645 deaths linked to the storm (with a range of 793 and 8,498 deaths). About one-third of the deaths were attributed to delays or interruptions in health care, which in many cases was a result of widespread power outages across the island for weeks and months after the storm knocked out 80 percent of the island’s grid.

And, they wrote, the estimate of total deaths “is likely to be conservative since subsequent adjustments for survivor bias and household-size distributions increase this estimate to more than 5,000.”

Alexis Santos, a Puerto Rican demographer at Penn State who conducted his own analysis of mortality following the hurricane, told Vox the study’s methodology was consistent with how other scholars have tried to measure the death toll.

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Facebook Is Giving Scientists Its Data to Fight Misinformation – ROBBIE GONZALEZ SCIENCE 05.29.18 07:00 AM

For the first time, researchers will be able to access Facebook’s data and publish their findings without pre-approval from the company.

Alyssa Foote

Facebook is keeping a close eye on misinformation in the lead-up to 2018’s elections. Which elections, exactly? All of them, according to the team working within the company to combat fake news. That means Turkey in June, Mexico in July, Rwanda in September, Brazil in October, and the US in November, to list just a few. It’s a lot to keep track of, even—or perhaps especially—for a company as large, influential, and scrutinized as Facebook.

Which is why the company wants help. Last month, Facebook, together with the non-profit Social Science Research Council, announced an initiative that will connect independent researchers with Facebook’s vast and, until now, largely inaccessible troves of data on human behavior. The goal: investigate social media’s impact on elections and democracy.

The initiative is significant for many reasons, but here’s the big one: It will, for the first time, enable researchers to not only access Facebook’s data, but publish findings from that data without pre-approval from Facebook. That means if scientists uncover something in the social network’s data that makes it look bad, Facebook won’t be able to prevent them from making that information public.

At the time it was announced, Facebook and the SSRC provided few details about the then-unnamed initiative. Nearly two months on, the endeavor still has no official name, but some details are beginning to emerge—including how the initiative will protect Facebook users’ data from the kind of misuse that landed Mark Zuckerberg in congressional hearings last month.

“Facebook is going to provide encrypted laptops,” says political scientist Gary King, director of the Institute for Quantitative Social Science at Harvard University. He calls the laptops virtual clean rooms. They’ll provide researchers remote access to Facebook’s infrastructure while recording every click and keystroke. “It’s not a laptop you’d ever use to send personal messages. That’s not its purpose. Its purpose is to provide a level of security similar to what you’d find in a locked room in Menlo Park. Its purpose is to avoid another Cambridge Analytica.”

How will the auditing work? The details are TBD says King, who, together with Stanford legal scholar Nathaniel Persily, developed the industry-academic partnership model that Facebook will use to share its data. But some analyses will happen in real-time, via automated scripts. Others will be conducted on a post-hoc basis by experts trained to decipher log files—the record of activity on each laptop, including what information was requested, who requested it, and what they did with it.

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