Eric Baumer: A Human Approach to Algorithm Design

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Baumer’s work ranges from humanizing algorithmic designs to the socioeconomic inequities of Facebook and online data privacy.

Have you checked your Facebook, Twitter or Instagram account recently? Maybe you’ve used Google Maps to get you to your current destination. Speaking of Google, you’ve probably used a search engine in the last 24 hours. How about shopping at Target?

All of those tasks, somewhere along the way, require an algorithm—a set of rules to be followed in problem-solving operations.

Social media uses algorithms to sort and order posts on users’ timelines, select advertisements and help users find people they may know. Google Maps uses algorithms to find the shortest route between two locations. And Target plugs a customer’s purchases into algorithms to decide which coupons to send them, for instance, deals on baby items if they’ve been purchasing items someone who is expecting a baby might purchase.

The inferences these computer algorithms make using data such as gender, age and political affiliation, among other things, can be frightening, and they raise a plethora of privacy concerns.

Eric Baumer, the Frank Hook Assistant Professor of Computer Science and Engineering, is studying it all, from how people interact with these systems, to how nonprofits can better use algorithms, to the privacy concerns that accompany the technology. He has received a number of National Science Foundation (NSF) grants for his work on human interactions with algorithms, including a National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award for his proposal to develop participatory methods for human-centered design of algorithmic systems.

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STORY BY Stephen Gross
PHOTOGRAPHY BY: Illustrations by Adam Ferriss