Skip to main content

The 30 Top Thinkers Under 30: The Creator of a Police Profiling Database Who Wants to Question the Ethics of Big Data

For the month of April we're profiling the individuals who made our inaugural list of the 30 top thinkers under 30, the young men and women we predict will have a serious impact on the social, political, and economic issues we cover every day here at Pacific Standard.
Lie-detection programs cost American taxpayers $4 billion each year. (Photo: jcjgphotography/Shutterstock)

Lie-detection programs cost American taxpayers $4 billion each year. (Photo: jcjgphotography/Shutterstock)

Vera Katelyn Wilde, 29, Political Science and Psychology

“I research how technology makes the state and the state makes technology,” Vera Katelyn Wilde says.

Her work has proved that automation can inflame racial issues—she’s working on creating the nation's first police profiling database—and that lie detectors are ethically questionable. Government-run technology, Wilde says, “lets the state assert the right to look through people's bodies and other boundaries, often without probable cause.”

So far, she has won more than a dozen awards, including a hard-to-get National Science Foundation dissertation improvement grant. All of her degrees, including a Ph.D. in politics, are from the University of Virginia, though she’s headed to the University of California-Los Angeles’ psychology department to work on that school’s NSF-funded Justice Database. Her published papers have sexy names like “Truth, Lies, and Polygraph Tape: The Political Development of the Surveillance State.”

“I’ve always been fascinated by questions about power and human behavior,” Wilde says. Growing up in Alabama, her high school didn’t offer psychology classes but she was so taken by the subject that she got a job grading community college psychology exams. “I just read a lot,” she says. “Then I took a test and earned credit for college psychology but was too intimidated by the large introductory class sizes to take psychology classes as an undergraduate. By the time I realized psychology was an intellectual home for me, I already had another home in political science.”

Though she didn’t set out to have a double-subject focus, the interdisciplinary aspect of her work has turned into an asset: “It means that I can keep bringing fresh perspective and ideas to the table in both fields.”

And she’s starting to see her work make a difference in the real world. Thanks to her research on polygraph bias, she says, a police chief told her that an officer in his department was able to keep her job.

“Sometimes I get frustrated that I don’t see results faster,” Wilde says, “but organizational change is always slow. Social change is always slow. One of my mentors, the political psychologist Rose McDermott [at Brown University], told me that academic work is a marathon, not a sprint. And I am always wanting to sprint, but she’s absolutely right. Learning that has been very hard and very helpful.”

Wilde feels lucky to have had strong female academics guide her career—McDermott among them, but also UVA’s Michele Claibourn and Yale’s Vesla Weaver: “They have helped me with experimental designs, choices of methods, and above all with having confidence in my ideas and expressive abilities,” she says.

When she can, Wilde writes articles for mainstream media outlets, including the Guardian. “I can’t wait to translate my research into broad-interest publications,” she says. “It’s not a ‘creditable’ academic skill from the tenure perspective. But it’s such a core part of my job in my mind.”

Wilde also dabbles in many of the arts. She’s an oil painter, a jazz vocalist, and a songwriter. “I’m writing a few plays and a novel,” she adds, “and I’ve been publishing poetry and humor bit by bit.” But Wilde’s most soul-nourishing artistic hobby, she says, is acting, because it’s so deeply collaborative: “Academic work can be isolating. When you’re in a play, you’re immediately embedded in a family, and you feed off one another in order to move and breathe.”

The obvious question to all this is: How does Wilde find time to do so much? Her answer: “I find that rest often makes me more tired. Throwing myself into a creative project—whether it’s cooking, art, or research—gives me new energy.”

Before she retires from academia, Wilde wants to have clarified the costs and benefits of technology-based decision tools, be they polygraphs in police work, diagnostic tools in medicine, or welfare calculators in public administration. She points to the century of legal efforts to limit lie-detection programs, and to the fact that they cost American taxpayers $4 billion each year.

“We need to be asking questions about the ethics of this Big Data revolution,” she emphasizes, “beyond the simplest ones about the reach of outright government surveillance, which are also really important. We need to be generating evidence-based answers to take back to the public and say, Hey, here’s what’s going on in your name, what do you think? What do you want? That’s going to be foundational to keeping our democracy alive in the 21st century.”

Of course, Wilde has written a haiku summary of her dissertation:

            Technology seems
neutral and data-driven.
Its use is human.

See our complete 2014 list of the 30 top thinkers under 30 here.