Artificial intelligence could reduce racial bias in homeless services, USC scientists say
December 05, 2023
USC and UCLA scientists collaborated on a research project for L.A. homeless service officials to address issues with racial bias within the triage tools that guide housing placement. The use of A.I. could help more people exit homelessness.
USC researchers have developed an artificial intelligence tool they recommend as one of several measures that would help homeless service agencies control for potential biases and ensure that applicants have a fair chance at getting housing.
The USC Center for Artificial Intelligence in Society (CAIS) on Wednesday released a new report that details the three-year collaborative research project conducted with the California Policy Lab at UCLA and the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA). The L.A. agency had sought an analysis and recommendations to improve its triage system amid concerns that implicit racial bias was driving inequity in housing placements and other homeless services.
Black people account for 7.6% of Los Angeles County’s overall population, but they represent 31.7% of the estimated 75,000 people in the county experiencing homelessness, based on the 2023 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count. (Data analysis for the annual count is led by USC researchers.)
In the new report, “Coordinated Entry System Triage Tool Research and Refinement,” the scientists recommend that LAHSA combine social science expertise with AI to ensure fair and equitable practices in risk assessments and housing placements.
“We’ve made an important step forward for Los Angeles in addressing the really challenging social problems of racial bias and homelessness, and we’ve done it in a way that is both technologically innovative and driven by the values of the community,” said Eric Rice, a professor at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, co-director of CAIS and the project leader.
“The partnership between social work and engineering allows us to go beyond the data, to understand the human side behind it, and to create AI solutions tailored to the specific needs of the population,” said Phebe Vayanos, a USC Viterbi School of Engineering associate professor, co-director of CAIS and lead for the USC Data Science and Computerized System Design Team for the project. “Our proposed system is also more transparent, which helps build trust and improve participation.”
The CAIS team includes more than a dozen researchers from the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work and USC Viterbi. Support for the project came from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, the Home for Good Funders Collaborative and the Homeless Policy Research Institute.
CAIS is part of the USC Frontiers of Computing moonshot launched by USC President Carol Folt with these key objectives: enhance the university’s computing curriculum for students, to bolster research that accounts for ethics, and boost recruitment of top scientists and students in such areas as AI and quantum computing. The university aims to advance computer science-driven research and development with a human-centered approach.
Addressing bias through AI development
For feedback, the researchers relied on a community advisory board. The members include people who were once homeless, frontline case managers, and resource “matchers” who allocate housing.
“What we’ve been trying to do with this process is to help create less bias in the model, but also help create less bias in the way that we collect the data,” said Rice, explaining the CAIS team’s approach.
The triage tool includes an assessment to gauge the severity of clients’ needs and vulnerability. The researchers identified 19 questions that would most accurately predict future adverse events for a client and their likelihood of exiting homelessness.
The community advisory board worked with the researchers to reword these items to be sensitive to the experiences of trauma and racism common to people experiencing homelessness.
The scientists also recommended guidelines for administering the tool in ways that could reduce client stress during the intake process and increase the probability that housing representatives could capture accurate information about their vulnerability and needs.
The researchers clearly understand the crisis of homelessness, said Marina Genchev, director of systems and planning at LAHSA.
“We may be talking about huge quantities of data and where AI or prediction can come into play, but it is never a pure science exercise. It is always a human exercise using data,” she said.
Two models to inform housing decisions
The researchers developed two data systems models that can be adjusted to fulfill different needs. The California Policy Lab team developed a data prediction model linking existing administrative data from touchpoints throughout the County of Los Angeles to predict future adverse outcomes and escalate those clients’ priority for available housing resources.
For their model, the CAIS researchers aimed to address overall homelessness by improving equity across all groups to successfully exit homelessness. In testing, this model improved the fairness, efficiency, and transparency of the system all at the same time.
It gave stakeholders a way to implement their preferences in terms of what the system should be doing. At the same time, it increased the number of individuals able to successfully exit homelessness by 3%, reducing overall homelessness over time, Vayanos said.
Rice and Vayanos are developing similar models for homeless services in Missouri and Washington. Vayanos also made a Python software package for social service agencies, and she is finalizing another that allows local communities to adapt the researchers’ models to their needs.
“We have a long way to go to solve homelessness,” Rice said. “But we’re doing something to make for a more equitable, fair and community-driven process that will help to serve people experiencing homelessness — no matter who they are — in a more thoughtful and meaningful way.”
U.S. Army Gen. Paul Nakasone, the nation’s top military cybersecurity official and a USC alum, was contemplative as he read the inscription on a stone within the USC Japanese rock garden near Trousdale Parkway.
“On a stone for three years” is an ancient Japanese proverb that embodies resilience. It means that if one sits on a stone long enough, eventually it will become warm.
This symbol of perseverance honors the memory of the Japanese Americans — the Nisei — whose lives were upended by U.S. incarceration during World War II. The Nisei who had attended USC but were not allowed to finish were awarded honorary degrees in 2022 by USC President Carol Folt. This was a relief to the advocates and alumni who spent decades seeking the requited recognition for their kin, nearly all of whom had passed away.
Nakasone, a third-generation Japanese American who grew up in Minnesota and now leads both the U.S. Cyber Command and the National Security Agency, is familiar with the stone’s inscription — and he has lived it. His own proverbial stone is quite warm by now; he has spent a lifetime in military service. Rising from ROTC in his undergraduate years to four-star general, Nakasone made a rigorous climb that required patience and resilience that only a few can achieve.
“The one thing that I remember from my schooling is learning how to think critically, which enabled answers to find solutions for tough problems,” Nakasone told USC leaders, faculty and students during his visit to campus on Thursday. “That’s what I learned from USC — the ability to solve really hard problems by defining the problem, identifying facts and assumptions, developing options to solve the problem and determining the best solution.”
Standing on his stone, he has a clear view of national and international cyber and international security issues. He has led U.S. Cyber Command and NSA since 2018.
USC gave him a strong foundation for his rise, he believes. It was a rock for him.
Return to Troy
Nakasone’s military assignments included Iraq, Afghanistan and South Korea. He rose quickly from a one-star to four-star general in six years. He has achieved multiple degrees, starting with St. John’s University, where he earned a bachelor’s in economics in 1986, followed by a master’s in systems management from the USC Viterbi School of Engineering in 1989. Nakasone also graduated from the U.S. Army War College, the Command and General Staff College, and Defense Intelligence College.
The general’s visit on Thursday was a homecoming for him. Nakasone visited with students, including some from USC Viterbi and others who are cadets in ROTC, who are attending USC for many of the same reasons that he did: to develop their leadership skills and military experience.
“One moment that stood out to me was when he was asked what he wished people in cybersecurity would do more often. His answer was simple but meaningful: to read more,” said U.S. Army Cadet Henriete Purina, a USC senior studying intelligence and cyber operations. “He explained that when you read, you learn about the past and educate yourself for the future. That really resonated with me.”
Purina and her fellow cadets impressed Nakasone, who, while visiting a place of his past, was thinking about their future.
“They understand the challenges that face them in the future, but they also have an optimism that is infectious,” Nakasone said of the cadets. “They are thinking about what they need to do to be effective leaders in this new security environment and lead soldiers in the future.”
“That’s what I learned from USC — the ability to solve really hard problems by considering facts and assumptions across a series of different options.”
— Gen. Paul Nakasone
Nakasone considered the options that students have now for professional careers during a fireside chat Thursday with Andrea Belz, vice dean of transformative initiatives at USC Viterbi, in the Ronald Tutor Campus Center. When Belz asked him if he had advice for students, he spoke from experience:
“As you think about the future, I encourage you to consider a future where public service might be part of your equation. Whether or not it’s in the military, whether or not it’s in the Foreign Service, whether or not it’s in the government — there is just a very special piece of being part of public service. And I would encourage USC students and my fellow alumni here to think hard about it.”
Innovative cyber solutions for modern challenges
Nakasone’s visit comes at a pivotal time for AI and cybersecurity globally. The recent meeting between U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in San Francisco included an agreement that the two countries’ researchers would continue to investigate risk and safety issues tied to the technology.
On Nov. 1-2, leaders from government, industry, the nonprofit sector and academia — including USC’s Adam Russell — met in the United Kingdom to discuss AI safety and corporate responsibility. Vice President Kamala Harris announced a new U.S. AI Safety Institute on the second day of the summit.
USC is poised to take a leading role in the world of AI safety. Earlier this year, President Carol Folt announced the USC Frontiers of Computing “moonshot.” The growing, $1 billion university initiative is expanding and accelerating advanced computing across the university. Frontiers of Computing will also reinforce USC’s research expertise in artificial intelligence and machine learning, cybersecurity, data science, blockchain and quantum information.
An essential component of the initiative is the emphasis on ethical, human-centric AI. USC researchers including Terry Benzel, David Balenson and Genevieve Bartlett — all housed at the USC Information Sciences Institute — are experts in fields like cybersecurity experimentation, critical infrastructure security, and network analysis and defense.
With battles increasingly fought over virtual terrain, the need for expertise in both software and hardware development is critical, Nakasone said.
“Perhaps the most impactful legislation that has been produced in many years is the CHIPS and Science Act just passed last year. I think about what that means in terms of what our country needs to be able to do to build a foundation and its capabilities with regards to semiconductors. This is going to be driving much of our economy for quite some time,” he said.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Defense awarded approximately $27 million for a USC-led Microelectronics Commons project as part of the CHIPS and Science Act of 2022. The university will lead a coalition of research and industry organizations with the power to accelerate the development and manufacturing of microelectronics in the United States.
“There is always a hardware aspect to what we do. One of the things that we do is code cryptographic materials for all our country’s most sensitive communications. A lot of that is hardware-based and being able to have that capability. While we have a tremendous, rich history of software developers, the CHIPS and Science Act is going to have a very positive impact on what we need to do on the hardware side as well,” Nakasone said.
He said that higher education research like that taking place at USC will play a vital role in addressing contemporary national security challenges by pioneering innovative solutions, fortifying an evidence-based foundation for well-informed policies, and establishing robust defense mechanisms in partnership with the public sector.
“USC has always excelled at being able to drive imagination to solve hard problems,” he said. “We have very difficult challenges in the future. But we have the talent and the know-how based upon what we’re able to develop here in our academic institutions.”
When asked what gives him hope, Nakasone points to the resilience and potential he sees within the American people.
“What gives me hope is the fact that we have a nation of people that continues to look for and drive innovation. We have a country that is seen by other countries in the world as a beacon of hope. We have the ability to form partnerships. We do have challenges, but I have great faith in what our nation can do.”
Americans are preparing for a holiday season marked by both tradition and uncertainty: Cherished traditions like Thanksgiving Day football remain, but supply chain disruptions and inflationary pressures threaten to dampen the spirits of holiday shoppers.
“Despite a potential decrease in consumer spending power, the demand during the holiday season, especially around Black Friday, remains high,” said Nick Vyas, an associate professor of clinical data sciences and operations at the USC Marshall School of Business.
Consumer credit card debt is at an all-time high of over $1 trillion. The nationwide personal saving rate — the income left over after people spend money and pay taxes — is on a steady decline. Inflation continues to drive up the prices of goods and services, further straining Americans’ wallets.
Even so, USC experts predict that total holiday spending on gifts, food and other seasonal items will rise, partly due to inflation. While pay increases have not kept pace with recent or post-pandemic inflation levels, consumers are likely to spend to get what they are looking for this holiday season, experts say.
“Inflation has been with us for some time now and has come to be expected,” said Lars Perner, an expert in consumer behavior and an assistant professor of clinical marketing at USC Marshall. “Many consumers realize that with continued inflation, money will buy less in the future than what it does at the moment, even if savings receive modest interest.”
Holiday shopping: Americans gear up for Cyber Monday, Black Friday
Americans are ready to spend during the holiday season, and they’ll do so with a blend of traditional in-store shopping and online purchases.
Consumers are increasingly turning to online platforms for their holiday gift shopping, drawn to the convenience, wider selection and often better prices. But physical stores are expected to account for the majority of holiday spending, with some reports estimating that 80% of purchases will occur in brick-and-mortar settings.
“Cyber Monday is largely a historical relic,” Perner said. “From a technological point of view, there is no need for the event today when most households have high-speed internet access at home. In the old days, shopping could be much more convenient with faster internet connections available at work. Today, Cyber Monday has become an excuse for an additional round of sales.”
Are supply chains ready for holiday shopping?
Experts predict that the upcoming holiday shopping season will have its fair share of supply chain challenges, likely affecting Black Friday sales and promotions. Increased consumer demands can quickly overwhelm supply chains unprepared or recovering from previous disruptions, leading to stock shortages and potential customer dissatisfaction, Vyas said.
Global supply chains are still fraught with logistical bottlenecks, labor shortages and challenges stemming from ongoing geopolitical tensions, said Vyas, who is also the founding director of the USC Marshall Randall R. Kendrick Global Supply Chain Institute.
“Supply chain challenges persist in the U.S., with some reports indicating shipping times for many products still exceeding pre-pandemic levels by 20%-40%. This has a direct impact on product availability and pricing,” he said.
Despite challenges, experts see signs of strength and potential growth. Businesses have shown they can adjust supply chains based on past disruptions, making them more resilient against future shocks. Also, experts note that using advanced tech like artificial intelligence and blockchain helps make supply chains better and safer.
AI enables the analysis of vast amounts of data, leading to more accurate demand forecasting and inventory management, Vyas said, pointing to a recent McKinsey & Co. report showing that AI can slash forecasting errors by up to 50%. Blockchain technology complements AI by introducing an additional layer of transparency and security, Vyas said. Blockchain acts as a decentralized ledger that records and verifies all transactions, allowing companies to seamlessly track the movement of goods from origin to delivery.
American football is a constant
On Thanksgiving Day, millions of Americans gather around their televisions to watch their favorite teams battle it out on the gridiron. For many, it’s the highlight of the holiday season, a time to come together with family and friends to enjoy a shared passion.
“Thanksgiving Day football games are deeply woven into the fabric of American culture and tradition — it’s all about turkeys and touchdowns. We pride ourselves in competition and the heat of the battle,” said Lorena Martin, an assistant professor of clinical data sciences and operations at USC Marshall. “The remarkable athletic prowess, coupled with the elegance of the game’s strategy and fierce competition, is an exhilarating spectacle for sports fans around the world.” The economic significance of football is equally undeniable, said Martin, an expert in sports business, sports performance and data analytics.
The NFL, one of the world’s most lucrative sports leagues, generated $18.6 billion in revenue in 2022, eclipsing the earnings of several other major sporting leagues combined. NFL games provide a significant boost to host cities, particularly on high-profile days like Thanksgiving, she said.
“National broadcasts are valuable currency for all NFL franchises, as they provide an opportunity to expand their brand presence beyond their regional footprint and drive additional interest, and subsequently revenue, from that increased exposure,” said Courtney Brunious, an expert in sports business and an assistant professor of clinical management and organization at USC Marshall.
“Teams hosting or playing in Thanksgiving games are able to tap into a captive audience at home,” Brunious said, “which typically tunes in at amongst the highest rates of the season, or in the case of a venue, an audience that has built holiday traditions out of attending these games.”
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