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A Linguist Who Cracks the Code in Names to Predict Ethnicity


Lisa Spira, 30, is director of research and product development at Ethnic Technologies in South Hackensack, N.J.

Stashed in: Consumers, Extraordinary People, Software is eating the world., Cognitive Bias, Privacy!

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What do you do at Ethnic Technologies?

I lead a team that develops our software that predicts individuals’ ethnic origins based on their full names, addresses and ZIP codes. We build predictive algorithms based on patterns in names from various ethnic groups. We also track demographic data that pinpoints ethnic breakdowns by geography. We identify 158 distinct ethnicities, with further segmentation for Hispanics and African-Americans.

Can you give an example of how your company’s software works?

Let’s hypothetically take the name of an American: Yeimary Moran. We see the common name Mary inside her first name, but unlike the name Rosemary, for example, we know that the letter string “eimary” is Hispanic. Her surname could be Irish or Hispanic. So then we look at where our Yeimary Moran lives, which is Miami. From our software, we discover that her neighborhood is more Hispanic than Irish. Customer testing and feedback show that our software is over 90 percent accurate in most ethnicities, so we can safely deduce that this Yeimary Moran is Hispanic.

What types of companies come to you for your services?

Any company that wants to target its goods or services to a particular ethnic group. A perfect example is cosmetics. African-Americans, Asians, Hispanics and Caucasians may prefer different cosmetics.

What if companies want to target ethnic groups for the wrong reason?

We vet every potential client to make sure it is reputable. We work hard to make sure clients don’t have suspicious motivations for using this information. Our contracts specify allowable uses.

Not sure how I feel about this. 

I understand that companies want to reach potential customers but there is something that does not feel right about this kind of targeting.

State Supreme Court [Mass] rules that asking for customers' ZIP codes is illegal [3/12/2013]

Michaels stores violated the state's consumer protection law by asking customers for their ZIP codes, the state's highest court ruled.

A customer filed a class-action lawsuit against Michaels in 2011 after cashiers asked for her ZIP code at the Everett store. The plaintiff, Melissa Tyler, began receiving unsolicited phone and mail pitches from Irving, Texas-based Michaels.

“Data mining is one of the more pernicious practices in which retailers engage, and retailers like Michaels use whatever means necessary to collect customer data so that they can better market their wares,” Tyler’s attorney, Greg Blankenship, wrote in the complaint

I would not say it's "pernicious" for a company to want to find customers.

But I understand the privacy concern. 

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