Stephen Baker

The Numerati
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Dirty Data at Amex

September 29, 2008Final Jeopardy

One big problem for the Numerati: A lot of horrible data out there. My sister had gotten a new American Express card and was trying to set up online access. She had trouble, called tech assistance, and they asked her for her mother's maiden name.

She provided it.

Wrong, she was told.

Wrong? But it was right! Well, the help person said, let's look for another question. My sister asked how they came up with all these questions, and they said was told that they had lots of data on her. But if it was wrong, what was the point of trying to provide answers? In the end, the help desker asked for her last five addresses. She came up with one from the 1960s. Wrong again.

Let's make a new question, the help desk person helpfully suggested.

How about mother's maiden name?

So now they know it.

I'm in Portland, about to head out to Seattle on a train. I have an NPR interview this afternoon in Seattle, and a full day tomorrow, including a talk at Microsoft and a book talk/signing at (Elliott) Bay Books on Pioneer Square. Please come.

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