Five projects that are harnessing big data for good

Five projects that are harnessing big data for good


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Often the value of data science lies in the work of joining the dots.


Arezou Soltani Panah, Swinburne University of Technology and Anthony McCosker, Swinburne University of Technology

Data science has boomed over the past decade, following advances in mathematics, computing capability, and data storage. Australia’s Industry 4.0 taskforce is busy exploring ways to improve the Australian economy with tools such as artificial intelligence, machine learning and big data analytics.

But while data science offers the potential to solve complex problems and drive innovation, it has often come under fire for unethical use of data or unintended negative consequences – particularly in commercial cases where people become data points in annual company reports.

We argue that the data science boom shouldn’t be limited to business insights and profit margins. When used ethically, big data can help solve some of society’s most difficult social and environmental problems.

Industry 4.0 should be underwritten by values that ensure these technologies are trained towards the social good (known as Society 4.0). That means using data ethically, involving citizens in the process, and building social values into the design.

Here are a five data science projects that are putting these principles into practice.

Read more:
The future of data science looks spectacular

1. Finding humanitarian hot spots

Social and environmental problems are rarely easy to solve. Take the hardship and distress in rural areas due to the long-term struggle with drought. Australia’s size and the sheer number of people and communities involved make it difficult to pair those in need with support and resources.

Our team joined forces with the Australian Red Cross to figure out where the humanitarian hot spots are in Victoria. We used social media data to map everyday humanitarian activity to specific locations and found that the hot spots of volunteering and charity activity are located in and around Melbourne CBD and the eastern suburbs. These kinds of insights can help local aid organisations channel volunteering activity in times of acute need.


Distribution of humanitarian actions across inner Melbourne and local government areas. Blue dots and red dots represent scraped Instagram posts around the hashtags #volunteer and #charity.



2. Improving fire safety in homes

Accessing data – the right data, in the right form – is a constant challenge for data science. We know that house fires are a serious threat, and that fire and smoke alarms save lives. Targeting houses without fire alarms can help mitigate that risk. But there is no single reliable source of information to draw on.

In the United States, Enigma Labs built open data tools to model and map risk at the level of individual neighbourhoods. To do this effectively, their model combines national census data with a geocoder tool (TIGER), as well as analytics based on local fire incident data, to provide a risk score.


Fire fatality risk scores calculated at the level of Census block groups.
Enigma Labs


3. Mapping police violence in the US

Ordinary citizens can be involved in generating social data. There are many crowdsourced, open mapping projects, but often the value of data science lies in the work of joining the dots.

The Mapping Police Violence project in the US monitors, make sense of, and visualises police violence. It draws on three crowdsourced databases, but also fills in the gaps using a mix of social media, obituaries, criminal records databases, police reports and other sources of information. By drawing all this information together, the project quantifies the scale of the problem and makes it visible.


A visualisation of the frequency of police violence in the United States.
Mapping Police Violence


Read more:
Data responsibility: a new social good for the information age

4. Optimising waste management

The Internet of Things is made up of a host of connected devices that collect data. When embedded in the ordinary objects all around us, and combined with cloud-based analysis and computing, these objects become smart – and can help solve problems or inefficiencies in the built environment.

If you live in Melbourne, you might have noticed BigBelly bins around the CBD. These smart bins have solar-powered trash compactors that regularly compress the garbage inside throughout the day. This eliminates waste overflow and reduces unnecessary carbon emissions, with an 80% reduction in waste collection.

Real-time data analysis and reporting is provided by a cloud-based data management portal, known as CLEAN. The tool identifies trends in waste overflow, which helps with bin placement and planning of collection services.


BigBelly bins are being used in Melbourne’s CBD.
Kevin Zolkiewicz/Flickr, CC BY-NC


5. Identifying hotbeds of street harassment

A group of four women – and many volunteer supporters – in Egypt developed HarassMap to engage with, and inform, the community in an effort to reduce sexual harassment. The platform they built uses anonymised, crowdsourced data to map harassment incidents that occur in the street in order to alert its users of potentially unsafe areas.

The challenge for the group was to provide a means for generating data for a problem that was itself widely dismissed. Mapping and informing are essential data science techniques for addressing social problems.


Mapping of sexual harassment reported in Egypt.


Read more:
Cambridge Analytica’s closure is a pyrrhic victory for data privacy

Building a better society

Turning the efforts of data science to social good isn’t easy. Those with the expertise have to be attuned to the social impact of data analytics. Meanwhile, access to data, or linking data across sources, is a major challenge – particularly as data privacy becomes an increasing concern.

While the mathematics and algorithms that drive data science appear objective, human factors often combine to embed biases, which can result in inaccurate modelling. Digital and data literacy, along with a lack of transparency in methodology, combine to raise mistrust in big data and analytics.

Nonetheless, when put to work for social good, data science can provide new sources of evidence to assist government and funding bodies with policy, budgeting and future planning. This can ultimately result in a better connected and more caring society.The Conversation

Arezou Soltani Panah, Postdoc Research Fellow (Social Data Scientist), Swinburne University of Technology and Anthony McCosker, Senior Lecturer in Media and Communications, Swinburne University of Technology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Does Victoria have Australia’s highest rate of crime?

FactCheck: does Victoria have Australia’s highest rate of crime?

Don Weatherburn, UNSW

But sadly, under Daniel Andrews Victoria has won the unenviable title as the state with the country’s highest rate of crime.

– Leader of the Victorian Liberal Party Matthew Guy, speaking at the party’s election campaign launch, 28 October, 2018

The Victorian Liberal Party has promised to take a tough stance on crime if elected on November 24, with proposals including mandatory minimum sentencing for repeat offenders of serious crimes (including murder, rape, aggravated home invasions, aggravated burglaries and car-jackings) and an overhaul of the bail system.

At the party’s election campaign launch, Victorian Opposition leader Matthew Guy said Labor had presided over a “law and order crisis”, adding that under Premier Daniel Andrews, “Victoria has won the unenviable title as the state with the country’s highest rate of crime”.

Is that right?

Response from Matthew Guy’s office

The Conversation asked a spokesperson for Matthew Guy for sources and comment to support his statement, but did not receive a response before deadline.

Nevertheless, it is possible to check the statement against publicly available data.


Leader of the Victorian Liberal Party Matthew Guy said that “under Daniel Andrews, Victoria has won the unenviable title as the state with the country’s highest rate of crime”. The assertion is incorrect.

The Andrews government was elected in November 2014. According to Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) Crime Victimisation Survey data, between July 2014 and June 2017 (the latest figures), Victoria did not top the nation in terms of crime rates for any but one of the 11 measured categories of personal and property crime.

Looking at the Crime Victimisation Survey results for three years up to and including 2016-17, Victoria showed the highest rate of sexual assault in two of those years. However, the ABS said the sexual assault data must be used with caution due to the small sample size.

For the other ten crime categories, the Victorian crime rate was lower than at least one other state or territory in each of the three years considered.

ABS Recorded Crime data show that between 2014 and 2017, Victoria did not have the highest rate of murder in the nation, nor did it have the highest rate of criminal offenders proceeded against by police at any time between November 2014 and June 2017.

Comparing crime rates between states and territories

Making comparisons between recorded crime rates in different states and territories is fraught with difficulty, due to the differences in police practices and counting methods across the nation.

The most reliable data set for this task is the Australia Bureau of Statistics (ABS) Crime Victimisation Survey. Published annually since 2008-09, the national survey collects data on people’s experience of violence and household crime.

The survey records both reported and unreported crimes. Given that not all crimes are reported to police, this provides us with a bigger picture.

The questions asked in the ABS Crime Victimisation Survey are the same for all states and territories. The victimisation rates represent the prevalence of selected crimes in Australia, expressed as a percentage of the total relevant population.

Personal crime statistics

This part of the survey records experiences of crime across: physical assault, face-to-face threatened physical assault, non-face-to-face threatened physical assault, sexual assault and robbery.

The Andrews government was sworn in on December 4, 2014, and the latest ABS Crime Victimisation Survey data are for 2016-17.

In the years 2014-15, 2015-16 and 2016-17, Victoria did not have the highest rate in the nation for physical assault, face-to-face threatened physical assault, non-face-to-face threatened physical assault, or robbery.

Victoria did have the highest reported rate for sexual assault in 2015-16, and equal highest in 2014-15. However, the ABS warned that the data for Victoria, Queensland, South Australia, and Western Australia should be treated with caution due to the small sample size, and a relative standard error of 25% to 50%.

In addition, the data for Tasmania, the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory had a relative standard error greater than 50%, and was considered too unreliable for general use.

The most recent Crime Victimisation Survey data are presented below.

Property crimes statistics

The property crime element of the ABS survey covers home break-ins, attempted home break-ins, motor vehicle thefts, thefts from motor vehicles, malicious damage to property and other theft.

At no time in the years 2014-15, 2015-16 or 2016-17 did Victoria have the nation’s highest rate of victimisation on any of these measures.

The chart below shows the latest available data:

Murder and homicide

We can look to a different ABS data set – ABS Recorded Crime – Victims – to assess the murder rates across the states and territories for the calendar years from 2014 to 2017 (the latest year for which data are available).

However, there are missing data points in this record: no data were collected in the Northern Territory in 2016, Tasmania in 2010, 2011, 2013 and 2015, or the Australian Capital Territory in 2010, 2011, 2013, 2015 and 2016.

Even with the missing data points, we can see that Victoria did not have the highest recorded murder rate in any of the years from the election of the Andrews government to 2017.

The terms homicide and murder are sometimes used interchangeably, but in fact they mean different things. Homicide is a broader term that includes some counts of manslaughter, murder-suicides, and other incidents.

The Australian Institute of Criminology publishes data from its National Homicide Monitoring Program. The latest report, published in 2017, shows information between July 2012 and June 2014, before the Andrews government was elected.

But as you can see from the chart below, the Northern Territory had a higher homicide incident rate than Victoria (and all other states and the Australian Capital Territory) every year between 1999-2000 and 2013-14. You can explore an interactive version of the chart here.

The issues with recorded crime data

The ABS publishes “Recorded Crime” data on the number and rate of crime victims (with the latest data reporting on the 2017 calendar year), and offenders formally proceeded against by police (with the latest data reporting on the 2016-17 financial year).

These data sets aren’t ideal for comparing crime rates between states and territories, for a few reasons.

The data come from state and territory police administrative computer systems. Each state has subtly different recording methods and police practices, and this affects the comparability of data.

In addition, people’s willingness to report crime to police can differ across the states and territories. As such, the crime victims data are less reliable for measuring crime rates than the Crime Victimisation Survey.

The ABS introduced rules to guide the recording and counting of criminal incidents for statistical purposes, to enable consistency across the states and territories. But there remains some variability in the interpretation of the rules.

The offender data are considered to be a reliable indication of legal actions. But they’re not a direct indicator of crime rates, due to the issues outlined above. Different jurisdictions also have different crime “clear up rates” (the percentage of a category of crimes that are solved).

The number of people arrested and proceeded against, and the types of crimes they are arrested for, can have as much to do with changes in legislation, police policy and practices in different jurisdictions as the number of criminal incidents committed.

It’s very important to keep those caveats in mind when looking at the data in the following chart.

What’s the picture for Victoria?

The data in the chart below is published by the Victorian Crime Statistics Agency, and relates to crime in Victoria only.

The offences shown were chosen as their recorded incidence is generally considered to reflect their prevalence in the community, and the recorded rates are not overly impacted by law enforcement initiatives.

The recorded rates of drug offences and justice offences, by comparison, can be heavily affected by discretionary police decisions.

– Don Weatherburn, with Jackie Fitzgerald, director, NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research

Blind review

This FactCheck is accurate and based on reliable data. The verdict is correct: Victoria does not have the highest rate of crime.

It it worth observing that the latest federal Report on Government Services (2018) does highlight a significant drop in perceptions of public safety in Victoria. Often the public’s perceptions do not match the reality.

It is also noteworthy that the number and rate of criminal incidents in Victoria have been at higher levels in recent years compared to before the Andrews government came to power. – Terry Goldsworthy


The Conversation FactCheck is accredited by the International Fact-Checking Network.



The Conversation’s FactCheck unit was the first fact-checking team in Australia and one of the first worldwide to be accredited by the International Fact-Checking Network, an alliance of fact-checkers hosted at the Poynter Institute in the US. Read more here.

Have you seen a “fact” worth checking? The Conversation’s FactCheck asks academic experts to test claims and see how true they are. We then ask a second academic to review an anonymous copy of the article. You can request a check at Please include the statement you would like us to check, the date it was made, and a link if possible.The Conversation

Don Weatherburn, Director of the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research; Adjunct Professor, School of Social Science, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Some cybersecurity apps could be worse for privacy than nothing at all

Some cybersecurity apps could be worse for privacy than nothing at all


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Apple has removed several security tools from the Mac app store after they were found to be collecting unnecessary personal data.


Suranga Seneviratne, University of Sydney

It’s been a busy few weeks for cybersecurity researchers and reporters. There was the Facebook hack, the Google plus data breach, and allegations that the Chinese government implanted spying chips in hardware components.

In the midst of all this, some other important news was overlooked. In early September, Apple removed several Trend Micro anti-malware tools from the Mac app store after they were found to be collecting unnecessary personal information from users, such as browser history. Trend Micro has now removed this function from the apps.

It’s a good reminder that not all security apps will make your online movements more secure – and, in some cases, they could be worse than doing nothing at all. It’s wise to do your due diligence before you download that ad-blocker or VPN – read on for some tips.

Read more:
Encrypted smartphones secure your identity, not just your data

Security apps

There are range of tools people use to protect themselves from cyber threats:

  • Virtual private networks (VPNs) allow you to establish a secure connection with a remote server and route all your traffic through it so it can’t be tracked by your internet service provider. VPNs are commonly used to access geo-blocked content, and for additional privacy.
  • Ad-blockers prevent advertisements from appearing on the websites you visit.
  • App-lockers allow you to set passwords for individual apps. For example, if somebody borrowed your phone to make a call, and then tried to access your Facebook app.
  • Tor hides your identity while you browse the internet, by encrypting and moving your traffic across multiple Tor nodes.

Read more:
As more vulnerabilities are discovered. Is it time to uninstall antivirus software?

Know the risks

There are multiple dangers in using these kinds of security software, especially without the proper background knowledge. The risks include:

Accessing unnecessary data

Many security tools request access to your personal information. In many cases, they need to do this to protect your device. For example, antivirus software requires information such as browser history, personal files, and unique identifiers to function. But in some cases, tools request more access than they need for functionality. This was the case with the Trend Micro apps.

Creating a false sense of security

It makes sense that if you download a security app, you believe your online data is more secure. But sometimes mobile security tools don’t provide security at the expected levels, or don’t provide the claimed services at all. If you think you can install a state-of-the-art mobile malware detection tool and then take risks online, you are mistaken.

For example, a 2017 study showed it was not hard to create malware that can bypass 95% of commercial Android antivirus tools. Another study showed that 18% of mobile VPN apps did not encrypt user traffic at all. And if you are using Tor, there are many mistakes you can make that will compromise your anonymity and privacy – especially if you are not familiar with the Tor setup and try to modify its configurations.

Lately, there have been reports of fake antivirus software, which open backdoors for spyware, ransomware and adware, occupying the top spots on the app charts. Earlier this year it was reported that 20 million Google Chrome users had downloaded fake ad-blocker extensions.

Software going rogue

Numerous free – or paid – security software is available in app stores created by enthusiastic individual developers or small companies. While this software can provide handy features, they can be poorly maintained. More importantly, they can be hijacked or bought by attackers, and then used to harvest personal information or propagate malware. This mainly happens in the case of browser extensions.

Know what you’re giving away

The table below shows what sort of personal data are being requested by the top-10 antivirus, app-locker and ad-blocking apps in the Android app store. As you can see, antivirus tools have access to almost all the data stored in the mobile phone.

That doesn’t necessarily mean any of these apps are doing anything bad, but it’s worth noting just how much personal information we are entrusting to these apps without knowing much about them.

Read more:
Explainer: how malware gets inside your apps

How to be safer

Follow these pointers to do a better job of keeping your smart devices secure:

Consider whether you need a security app

If you stick to the official apps stores, install few apps, and browse only a routine set of websites, you probably don’t need extra security software. Instead, simply stick to the security guidelines provided by the manufacturer, be diligent about updating your operating system, and don’t click links from untrusted sources.

If you do, use antivirus software

But before you select one, read product descriptions and online reviews. Stick to solutions from well-known vendors. Find out what it does, and most importantly what it doesn’t do. Then read the permissions it requests and see whether they make sense. Once installed, update the software as required.

Be careful with other security tools

Only install other security tools, such as ad-blockers, app-lockers and VPN clients, if it is absolutely necessary and you trust the developer. The returns from such software can be minimal when compared with the associated risks.The Conversation

Suranga Seneviratne, Lecturer – Security, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Travelling overseas? What to do if a border agent demands access to your digital device

Travelling overseas? What to do if a border agent demands access to your digital device


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New laws enacted in New Zealand give customs agents the right to search your phone.


Katina Michael, Arizona State University

New laws enacted in New Zealand this month give border agents the right to demand travellers entering the country hand over passwords for their digital devices. We outline what you should do if it happens to you, in the first part of a series exploring how technology is changing tourism.

Imagine returning home to Australia or New Zealand after a long-haul flight, exhausted and red-eyed. You’ve just reclaimed your baggage after getting through immigration when you’re stopped by a customs officer who demands you hand over your smartphone and the password. Do you know your rights?

Both Australian and New Zealand customs officers are legally allowed to search not only your personal baggage, but also the contents of your smartphone, tablet or laptop. It doesn’t matter whether you are a citizen or visitor, or whether you’re crossing a border by air, land or sea.

Read more:
How to protect your private data when you travel to the United States

New laws that came into effect in New Zealand on October 1 give border agents:

…the power to make a full search of a stored value instrument (including power to require a user of the instrument to provide access information and other information or assistance that is reasonable and necessary to allow a person to access the instrument).

Those who don’t comply could face prosecution and NZ$5,000 in fines. Border agents have similar powers in Australia and elsewhere. In Canada, for example, hindering or obstructing a border guard could cost you up to C$50,000 or five years in prison.

A growing trend

Australia and New Zealand don’t currently publish data on these kinds of searches, but there is a growing trend of device search and seizure at US borders. There was a more than fivefold increase in the number of electronic device inspections between 2015 and 2016 – bringing the total number to 23,000 per year. In the first six months of 2017, the number of searches was already almost 15,000.

In some of these instances, people have been threatened with arrest if they didn’t hand over passwords. Others have been charged. In cases where they did comply, people have lost sight of their device for a short period, or devices were confiscated and returned days or weeks later.

Read more:
Encrypted smartphones secure your identity, not just your data

On top of device searches, there is also canvassing of social media accounts. In 2016, the United States introduced an additional question on online visa application forms, asking people to divulge social media usernames. As this form is usually filled out after the flights have been booked, travellers might feel they have no choice but to part with this information rather than risk being denied a visa, despite the question being optional.

There is little oversight

Border agents may have a legitimate reason to search an incoming passenger – for instance, if a passenger is suspected of carrying illicit goods, banned items, or agricultural products from abroad.

But searching a smartphone is different from searching luggage. Our smartphones carry our innermost thoughts, intimate pictures, sensitive workplace documents, and private messages.

The practice of searching electronic devices at borders could be compared to police having the right to intercept private communications. But in such cases in Australia, police require a warrant to conduct the intercept. That means there is oversight, and a mechanism in place to guard against abuse. And the suspected crime must be proportionate to the action taken by law enforcement.

What to do if it happens to you

If you’re stopped at a border and asked to hand over your devices and passwords, make sure you have educated yourself in advance about your rights in the country you’re entering.

Find out whether what you are being asked is optional or not. Just because someone in a uniform asks you to do something, it does not necessarily mean you have to comply. If you’re not sure about your rights, ask to speak to a lawyer and don’t say anything that might incriminate you. Keep your cool and don’t argue with the customs officer.

Read more:
How secure is your data when it’s stored in the cloud?

You should also be smart about how you manage your data generally. You may wish to switch on two-factor authentication, which requires a password on top of your passcode. And store sensitive information in the cloud on a secure European server while you are travelling, accessing it only on a needs basis. Data protection is taken more seriously in the European Union as a result of the recently enacted General Data Protection Regulation.

Microsoft, Apple and Google all indicate that handing over a password to one of their apps or devices is in breach of their services agreement, privacy management, and safety practices. That doesn’t mean it’s wise to refuse to comply with border force officials, but it does raise questions about the position governments are putting travellers in when they ask for this kind of information.The Conversation

Katina Michael, Professor, School for the Future of Innovation in Society & School of Computing, Informatics and Decision Systems Engineering, Arizona State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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“Brazen fraud”: Melbourne businessman sentenced to four years jail over $1 million in GST refunds to ATO

“Brazen fraud”: Melbourne businessman sentenced to four years jail over $1 million in GST refunds to ATO

Matthew Elmas / Wednesday, October 10, 2018

A Melbourne man has been sentenced to four years in jail by the County Court of Victoria after being found guilty of committing more than $1 million in tax fraud through false GST refund claims.

The small business owner was alleged to have lodged 74 business activity statements between 2009 and 2015 that fraudulently claimed $1.084 million in GST refunds.

The Australian Taxation Office (ATO) said the company, Hey Man Transport, appeared to have no commercial business activity, despite claiming refunds that would have required it to have spent at least $11.9 million on goods and services.

Hey Man Transport was placed into liquidation in 2016.

The ATO audited the business in 2015, finding the business owner’s GST claims grew to $19,000 a month at their highest point in that year. The court found these claims to be fraudulent.

Deputy Commissioner Will Day characterised the case as “brazen fraud” against the tax system.

“This wasn’t an honest mistake by a small business owner trying to do the right thing — it was a calculated and deliberate attempt to commit fraud and steal money from taxpayers,” Day said in a statement.

“We welcome the jail sentence handed down and the warning it sends to others considering engaging in similar behaviour If you break the law we will hold you accountable, even if it means pursuing you in the courts.”

ATO will follow the law “to the letter”

Speaking to SmartCompany, Lisa Grieg, founder of tax and business advice service Perigee Advisers, said while the ATO was pursuing what it believes was deliberate fraud, businesses that accidentally break the rules can also land themselves in hot water.

“The ATO are a lot more aggressive, or a lot more to the letter of the law, with GST than with income tax,” Grieg says.

“With GST, its the government’s money, we’re just tax collecting.”

Grieg believes most small business owners try to do the right thing, but accounting for GST properly can be confusing, particularly when legislation changes, such as a recent move to remove sales tax on sanitary products.

As a result, she says there are a lot of business owners not properly reporting GST who are liable to be penalised by the ATO.

“People will keep doing it until there’s some sort of corrective action has taken place.

“People say: ‘I’ve always done it this way so that’s how I do it’, [and] that’s where the mistakes will be,” Grieg says.

Original article found HERE at

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