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Alumna Innovator Cuts Through Fog of War With Big Data

Rebecca Steorts '05
Beka Steorts ’05 has begun teaching this year at Duke University.

The editors of MIT Technology Review have named Rebecca "Beka" Steorts '05 one of this year's 35 "Innovators Under 35," recognizing her as a humanitarian in the field of software.

Steorts, an assistant professor in the Department of Statistical Science at Duke University, works in several fields, including record linkage. This involves merging together many, possibly "noisy" data sets to eliminate duplicate entries. For instance, one database might list someone in its fields as "Curry," "Stephen," "Steph," while fields in another database list the same person as "Curry," "Stephen," "Dell." (The former is Davidson basketball star Steph Curry, who shares the same name with his father, Dell Curry).

While some records are simple to reconcile, the exercise grows more complex as the number of records and databases increases. Applications include driving records, websites, medical records, human rights reports, tax records, criminal records, credit card reports and other large bodies of knowledge. By clearing the duplicate entries, more accurate answers to questions of social science can be determined.

Steorts is using advanced data-analysis techniques to help human rights groups get definitive casualty counts in the ongoing conflict in Syria.

The "Innovators Under 35" awards program began in 1999, and has honored exceptionally talented young innovators whose work has the potential to transform the world. Previous winners include Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the cofounders of Google; Mark Zuckerberg, the cofounder of Facebook; Jonathan Ive, the chief designer of Apple; Helen Greiner, the cofounder of iRobot; and Max Levchin, the cofounder of PayPal. 

Steorts and this year's other honorees are being profiled online and will be featured in the September/October issue of MIT Technology Review. They will present their work at the annual EmTech MIT conference Nov. 2-4 on the MIT campus. The conference focuses on emerging technologies and their impact.

A math major at Davidson, Steorts spent the summer following her graduation in 2005 as a research assistant to Associate Professor Tim Chartier. She credits Chartier, Professor Emeritus Ben Klein and Professor Laurie Heyer with mentoring her toward her interest in the area of data science.

Steorts earned a master's degree at Clemson University and a doctoral degree at the University of Florida in statistics. Prior to accepting a tenure track assistant professorship at Duke University, she held a visiting position at Carnegie Mellon University.