Hello from the IPAM Workshop on Privacy for Biomedical Data

I just arrived in LA for the IPAM Workshop on Algorithmic Challenges in Protecting Privacy for Biomedical Data. I co-organized this workshop with Cynthia Dwork, James Zou, and Sriram Sankararaman and it is (conveniently) before the semester starts and (inconveniently) overlapping with the MIT Mystery Hunt. The workshop has a really diverse set of speakers so to get everyone on the same page and anchor the discussion, we have 5 tutorial speakers and a few sessions or shorter talks. The hope is that these tutorials (which are on the first two days of the workshop) will give people some “common language” to discuss research problems.

The other big change we made to the standard workshop schedule was to put in time for “breakout groups” to have smaller discussions focused on identifying the key fundamental problems that need to be addressed when thinking about privacy and biomedical data. Because of the diversity of viewpoints among participants, it seems a tall order to generate new research collaborations out of attending talks and going to lunch. But if we can, as a group, identify what the mathematical problems are (and maybe even why they are hard), this can help identify the areas of common interest.

I think of these as falling into a few different categories.

  • Questions about demarcation. Can we formalize (mathematically) the privacy objective in different types of data sets/computations? Can we use these to categorize different types of problems?
  • Metrics. How do we formulate the privacy-utility tradeoffs for different problems? What is the right measure of performance? What (if anything) do we lose in guaranteeing privacy?
  • Possibility/impossibility. Algorithms which can guarantee privacy and utility are great, but on the flip side we should try to identify when privacy might be impossible to guarantee. This would have implications for higher-level questions about system architectures and policy.
  • Domain-specific questions. In some cases all of the setup is established: we want to compute function F on dataset D under differential privacy and the question is to find algorithms with optimal utility for fixed privacy loss or vice versa. Still, identifying those questions and writing them down would be a great outcome.

In addition to all of this, there is a student poster session, a welcome reception, and lunches. It’s going to be a packed 3 days, and although I will miss the very end of it, I am excited to learn a lot from the participants.


Some thoughts on paper awards at conferences

We (really Mohsen and Zahra) had a paper nominated for a student paper award at CAMSAP last year, but since both student authors are from Iran, their single-entry student visas prevented them from going to the conference. The award terms require that the student author present the work (in a poster session) and the conference organizers were kind enough to allow Mohsen to present his poster via Skype. It’s hardly an ideal communication channel, given how loud poster sessions are. Although the award went to a different paper, the experience brought up two questions that are not new but don’t get a lot of discussion.

How should paper awards deal with visa issues? This is not an issue specific to students from Iran, although the US State Department’s visa issuance for Iranian students is stupidly restrictive. Students from Iran are essentially precluded from attending any non-US conference unless they want to roll the dice again and wait for another visa at home. Other countries may also deny visas to students for various reasons. Requiring students to be present at the conference is discriminatory, since the award should be based on the work. Disqualifying a student for an award because of bullshit political/bureaucratic nonsense that is totally out of their control just reinforces that bullshit.

Why are best papers judged by their presentation? I have never been a judge for a paper award and I am sure that judges try to be as fair as they can. However, the award is for the paper and not its performance. I agree that scholarly communication through oral presentation is a valuable skill, but if the award is going to be determined by who gives the best show at the conference, they should retitle these to “best student paper and presentation award” or something like that. Maybe it should instead be based on video presentations to allow remote participation. If you are going to call it a paper award, then it should based on the written work.

I don’t want this to seem like a case of sour grapes. Not all student paper awards work this way, but it seems to be the trend in IEEE-ish venues. The visa issue has hurt a lot of researchers I know; they miss out on opportunities to get their name/face known, chances to meet and network with people, and the experience of being exposed to a ton of ideas in a short amount of time. Back when I had time to do conference blogging, it was a way for me to process the wide array of new things that I saw. For newer researchers (i.e. students) this is really important. Making paper awards based on presentations hits these students doubly: they can neither attend the conference nor receive recognition for their work.