Hilary Mason: There’s beauty in data science

Hilary Mason is more than just a microblog solutions finder (tweeters owe her big time) or web analytics optimizer. The Chief Scientist and head hell-raiser over at bitly, is a thinker, a philosopher, a leader and a frontline soldier in the field of Internet privacy. She is Big Data’s best friend and worst nightmare. Open source, y’all. Open source.


Mason and her team come up with the questions that sit between social science and data science. Mason also believes that data science is sexy, as one can become privy to the dark, underwater flow of information unknown to most and somewhat misunderstood by the few. There’s power in knowledge—even micronized, heavily encrypted knowledge—and power is sexy.


Mason may speak of kittens and Kardashians when on stage, but such seeming trivialities are actually part of her bread and butter. As a matter of fact, cats and Kimye point to a larger trend in social thinking, in what the world is captivated by and concerned about. Data science doesn’t just answer the question of what, but also the pressing question of where. Sure, most of America was reading articles on the Occupy Wall Street protests, but upon further investigation, it was revealed that only some areas (hello, Oakland) were interested in DIY pieces on how to withstand pepper spray assaults due to said protests.


Geolocation is certainly a preoccupation of Mason, who did her own experiments with Flickr to prove that, if so inclined, a person could map her daily movements and stalk her at her regular hangouts throughout NYC. It was certainly not the happiest piece of information Mason ever received. So, she went about inventing a script to subvert the geolocating system, to right this perturbance and bring attention to such a disquieting issue.


Soon, the advents in facial recognition technology will subvert Mason’s efforts, making it possible for people all over the web to culminate thousands of photos of her, showing her in the background of tourists’ pictures from all around New York. But this doesn’t mean that Mason will stop trying to make people aware of how their information and identity are being appropriated by e-commerce and faceless corporations. There is a large a-symmetry between those who provide valuable information (unwittingly or not) and those who process and benefit from it. It’s an issue that goes far beyond privacy; it is an issue of how far your data is allowed to go outside the boundaries of your control.


Mason always asks her team of scientists and mathematicians a series of questions when they propose a hypothesis. The last in the series is always, “what is the most evil thing that can be done with the answer to this question? What are the potential consequences of your work?” Perhaps that is the big take away from today’s Q & A session with Mason. We are making bigger and bigger strides in consumer analysis, online trends, and the scrutiny of individual habits at large. How far can we go though before Big Data switches stealthily into Big Brother? Only time (and hopefully, Mason) will tell.