April 24, 2014

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Overstock's $1M Challenge

As reported in Fast Company, RichRelevance and Overstock.com teamed up to offer up to a $1,000,000 prize for improving “its recommendation engine by 10 percent or more.”

If You Liked Netflix, You Might Also Like Overstock
When I first read a summary of this contest, it appeared they were following in Netflix’s footsteps right down to releasing user data sans names. This did not end well for Netflix’s users or for Netflix. Narayanan and Shmatikov were able to re-identify Netflix users using the contest dataset, and their research contributed greatly to Ohm’s work on de-anonimization. After running the contest a second time, Netflix terminated it early in the face of FTC attention and a lawsuit that they settled out of court.

This time, Overstock is providing “synthetic data” to contest entrants, then testing submitted algorithms against unreleased real data. Tag line: “If you can’t bring the data to the code, bring the code to the data.” Hmm. An interesting idea, but short on a few details around the sharp edges that jump out as highest concern. I look forward to getting the time to play with the system and dataset. What is good news is seeing companies recognize privacy concerns and respond with something interesting and new. That is, at least, a move in the right direction.

Place your bets now on which happens first: a contest winner with a 10% boost to sales, or researchers finding ways to re-identify at least 10% of the data?