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10 Bits: The Data News Hotlist

by Joshua New

This week’s list of data news highlights covers April 4-10, 2015 and includes articles about advancing space exploration with open data and how cell phone data can improve humanitarian aid.

1. Reducing Insurance Premiums with Personal Data

Life insurance company John Hancock has become the first insurer to allow U.S. customers to share wellness data to influence their premiums. This model, which is already used in South Africa, Europe, Australia, and Singapore, allows customers to share health-relevant information, such as fitness tracker data and geotagged check-ins at a gym, to receive rewards for healthy behavior, namely reduced premium prices. John Hancock will also aggregate customer wellness data to influence the development of future insurance products.

2. Space Data Gets a Code-a-thon

IBM and the National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA) have partnered to host a three day code-a-thon for NASA’s Space App Challenge, which aims to develop applications that can support space exploration. IBM will offer its cloud-based application development platform, called Bluemix, and Watson, its cognitive computing analytics service, to developers that participate in the code-a-thon. The code-a-thon, which NASA expects to draw 10,000 developers from 136 cities and will use datasets NASA is making publicly available for the challenge.

3. Regulator Calls for Background Check Database on Financial Professionals

The Investor Advisory Committee (IAC) at the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) proposed that the SEC should work with other federal and state financial regulatory agencies to develop a single, consolidated database of disciplinary information about financial industry professionals. Though some similar databases already exist, the IAC found that they are difficult to access and are not linked together. Such a database would make it easier for an investor to vet who they choose to do business with and better identify bad actors.

4. Preventing Traffic Jams with Data

The city of Toronto has announced a new initiative to better understand and reduce traffic congestion with more and better data. The city will create a team to address the current lack of timely and complete datasets on traffic information. Once these knowledge gaps are filled, the data team will then seek ways to put this data to use to improve traffic flows, including a hackathon in September 2015.

5. Developers Get On-Demand Machine Learning

Amazon Web Services (AWS) announced a machine learning platform designed to provide developers without machine learning experience the tools to integrate technology into their applications. Machine learning applications, such as Netflix’s recommendation feature, are traditionally complicated and require expertise to develop. AWS says its platform makes the technology more accessible, allowing developers with varying levels of expertise to perform complicated analytics tasks with high degrees of accuracy in short amounts of time.

6. Preventing Military Self-Harm

The Australian Defense Force is building a database of military personnel suicide data to improve suicide prevention efforts. The database will identify personnel who served since 1972 and have died by suicide since 1990. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare will analyze this data, which will then be used to inform government suicide prevention programs.

7. NIST Wants to Standardize ‘Big Data’

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has published a draft white paper to serve as the authoritative source for technical standards, guidelines, and definitions for data-related phrases and technologies. NIST developed the framework to allow data scientists to devote more time to actually working with their data instead of addressing concerns about external factors, such as whether or not their datasets will be usable on future computing platforms. NIST is accepting public comment on the framework until May 21, and it is advocating for the international community to adopt the framework.

8. Recognizing Hand Gestures with Machine Vision

Apple has developed machine vision technology that can accurately recognize human hand gestures. The technology uses 3D mapping hardware to create precise maps of depth in its field of view, which algorithms can then parse to discern between hand gestures such as a peace sign or a fist. Apple’s technology opens the door for applications such as in-air gesture control for software.

9. Improving Humanitarian Aid with Mobile Phone Data

The United Nation’s World Food Program and Global Pulse—an initiative to use data for development and humanitarian efforts—have completed research projects demonstrating the potential for mobile phone data to improve delivery of food aid. The projects used mobile phone data to pinpoint areas most in need, to identify households needing assistance during a flood, and monitor population mobility in relation to agricultural changes.

10. Using Satellite Data to Protect Against Algal Blooms

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Geological Survey, and NASA have teamed up to use satellite data, originally intended to study ocean biology, to create a warning system for toxic blooms of algae. The interagency project will convert data from various scientific satellites to formats that can be accessed via mobile devices and online portals. This data will serve to improve the accuracy and expediency of public health advisories about algal blooms, which can kill fish and contaminate drinking water.

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