The Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is crowdsourcing for answers on how to apply differential privacy solutions to complex data sets regarding public safety, and is dangling $276,000 in cash prizes to jumpstart the effort.

“The goal of this challenge is to develop solutions that can protect the privacy of individual citizens and first responders when agencies need to share data,” said Gary Howarth, NIST prize challenge manager, in an agency article. “Temporal map data, with its ability to track a person’s location over a period of time, is particularly helpful to public safety agencies when preparing for disaster response, firefighting and law enforcement tactics.”

NIST’s Differential Privacy Temporal Map Challenge includes three “sprints” where participants will develop privacy algorithms for prizes. The three sprints will award a total prize purse of $147,000. There are a couple of other contests included in the challenge that round up the prize totals to $276,000.

The organization is looking for de-identification algorithms that have:

  • “Output data that satisfies formal differential privacy”;
  • Preserve “the characteristics of original data sets as much as possible and, in particular, preserving sequential data characteristics and geographic characteristics”; and
  • Provide a robust “ability to process a wide variety of temporal and spatial data.”

These are not NIST’s first differential privacy challenges. The organization held a pair of challenges (NIST Differential Privacy Synthetic Data Challenge and The Unlinkable Data Challenge: Advancing Methods in Differential Privacy) in 2018.

The Census Bureau is applying the concept of differential privacy to the 2020 census and the associated data projects, according to remarks from a bureau official last month.

NIST’s Public Safety Communications Research (PSCR) Division is backing the competition. “NIST PSCR seeks to incentivize participants to develop their algorithms into tools useful to public safety agencies and to be of benefit to public safety in general,” the website says.

The first sprint opened on Oct. 1 for submissions, according to information from The window for the first sprint closes on Nov. 15, and winners will be announced Jan. 5, 2021. The second sprint opens on Jan. 6 for submissions, and closes on Feb. 22, with winners set to be announced March 23, 2021. The third and final sprint opens on March 29 for submissions, closes on May 17, with winners announced June. 16.

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