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Meet the computer scientist who just got $625K for his work that helps track down human traffickers


christopher re 2

For Christopher Re, a computer scientist at Stanford University, is taking big data to a whole new level.

He's building powerful data-processing programs that are open for anyone to use for anything — from tracking down human traffickers to analyzing genes.

He's also just been dubbed one of 24 MacArthur Foundation 2015 'genius grant' award winners, announced on September 29. The award comes with $625,000 award money for the winners to do with as they see fit — no strings attached.

That award money opens up doors to what seemed to Re like impossible dreams.

"It's one of the things you dream about, all these projects that you've had where it's like 'that's too crazy, I'll never be able to do that,' " Re said in a MacArthur Foundation video of his reaction when he received the call. "Now it looks like you can."

Re developed an artificially intelligent program called Deep Dive that makes sense of hidden information that Re calls "dark data"— unprocessed information stuck in tables, illustrations, and images — which is difficult to quantify or keep track of.

Re's programs can improve on their own with machine learning and can be integrated into existing database systems. The programs are available to everyone to use, prompting the MacArthur Foundation to write that Re is "democratizing big data analytics."

And people are already putting DeepDive to good use. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (also known as DARPA) is using it to suss out the secret details of human traffickers on the dark web. According to the DeepDive website, the program works like this:

In this application, the input is a portion of the public and dark web in which human traffickers are likely to (surreptitiously) post supply and demand information about illegal labor, sex workers, and more. DeepDive processes such documents to extract evidential data, such as names, addresses, phone numbers, job types, job requirements, information about rates of service, etc. Some of these data items are difficult for trained human annotators to accurately extract and have never been previously available.

That data is then used by law enforcement to track down human traffickers.

It's also been used by paleontologists to create a database of every fossil that's ever been found, and by scientists at Stanford Hospital to find associations between genes and diseases.

Christopher Re

"DeepDive was a project that we started a couple years ago basically in response to what we called macroscopic problems — problems where the information for a particular analysis is out there scattered throughout the literature," Re said.

Re is one of the 24 people selected for the MacArthur award. The annual award is given to scientists, journalists, musicians, and artists, whom are often called "MacArthur Geniuses." The other awardees includes journalist and author of "Between the World and Me" Ta-Nehisi Coates and photographer and videographer LaToya Ruby Frazier.

Watch Re talk about his work below.

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