Beka Steorts: Machine Learning, Human Rights, and Public Policy

Women in Machine Learning recently highlighted the work of iiD’s Rebecca Steorts. Rebecca also was recently awarded a National Science Foundation (NSF) Faculty Early Career Development Program (CAREER) award. The CAREER award is NSF's most prestigious awards in support of the early career development for those who who integrate research and education.

Rebecca studies computational social science problems at the intersection of machine learning, statistics, bioinformatics, human rights, and public policy. In addition to her role at iiD, she’s an Assistant Professor in the Duke Department of Statistical Science and is affiliated faculty in the Department of Computer Science, Biostatistics and Bioinformatics, and the (SSRI) Social Science Research Institute, Duke University.

“I study the difficult problem of deriving an accurate number of deaths from the Syrian conflict due to the common problem of data duplication in databases collected by different entities,” Rebecca says. “My work seeks to eliminate duplicate death records through a process of record linkage that is continually refined and made faster and more accurate by exploring connections in machine learning and statistics.”

The process has taken years of effort to refine, she explains. Together with her collaborators, they are narrowing in on an estimate that can be verified against data hand-curated by the Human Rights Data Analysis Group (HRDAG). Based on this work, Rebecca was named to MIT Technology Review's 35 Innovators Under 35 for 2015 as a humanitarian in the field of software.

“Working with HRDAG, and mentors such as Malay Ghosh and Steve Fienberg—and other such individuals—has not only shaped how I think about computational social science problems, but also about humanity and how the work done by a computational social scientist is much larger than one individual,” she says.

“I view the 35 Innovators Under 35 award as belonging to those who have died in Syria from horrible crimes and to their families. My work is about the collaborative nature of many people coming together and working on a problem that matters, and it has incredible impact in statistics, in human life, and also in the potential for shaping public policy. I have tremendous admiration for my colleagues, who are passionate, smart, caring, and determined to do principled work that matters. It has allowed me to continually redefine myself, my work, and my creative process. All in all, it takes one beyond the rudimentary sphere of life. I can think of nothing greater or more humbling.”

Watch a video about her work.