|May 2005||National Research Flagship||www.csiro.au|
O’Keefe - Number miner
In pure mathematics you can’t approximate the solution – you either get a proof or you don’t. Sometimes I’ve tried to prove things without success.
An epiphany is that moment in life when the metaphoric light globe appears above your head. It was one of those moments that led Christine O’Keefe to pursue a career in mathematics.
“During my final year of high school, I got 92 for a [mathematics] test and everyone else got 30 or 40. What made the difference was that I could solve a problem that no one else could solve – I could see a solution that we hadn’t learnt in class,” Christine says.
“I realised then that I really liked solving problems and I had an inkling that I was kind of good at it.”
Christine has been working with CSIRO Mathematical and Information Sciences (CMIS) for the past five years (including a one-year stint with the CSIRO ICT Centre). Currently she leads a group developing new statistical approaches to health data mining and analysis as a , part of the Preventative Health Flagship program.
“It’s about getting information from databases of health information, whether they are administrative databases such as Medicare or PBS (Prescription Benefits Scheme), or study data like the Australian Longitudinal Study of Ageing. We are focussing on obtaining the information and still protecting the privacy and confidentiality of the people represented in the databases,” Christine says.
Protecting privacy and confidentiality in information isn’t just a matter of deleting the name and address column. The more information you have about a person, the more information you can deduce about them by matching them with other data sets, and hence start recognising people.
“The most critical factor is that the person doing the analysis, or data mining, shouldn’t be able to determine any unit record. They shouldn’t be able to determine the entries corresponding to a single person,” Christine says.
According to Christine, developing a system that protects peoples’ privacy involves creating a ‘fool-proof’ solution and then trying to beat it.
“We’d say, ‘let’s make this modification to protect someone’s privacy’ and then set about trying to crack it’. This way we can incrementally improve the system,” Christine says.
Christine says the analytic and data mining techniques currently being developed for the health sector through the Preventative Health Flagship could be used elsewhere.
“There are applications in finance, intelligence, health and commercial situations where people want to extract information out of commercially sensitive databases. We have actually patented some of these techniques, which we call privacy preserving analytics (PPA),” Christine says.
Before joining CSIRO, Christine established herself as a leading academic researcher in pure mathematics.
“I worked in various universities in Australia and overseas. I spent one year of my PhD in Italy at the University of Rome. It was terribly exciting because my supervisor didn’t speak English, and neither did my collaborators, so I had to learn Italian,” Christine says.
“It’s just wonderful living in Rome; it’s such a wonderful place with all the history, museums and the churches. Plus, the field of finite geometry started in Italy, so there is a very strong school there.”
One of the highlights for Christine was working alongside a colleague to unveil a new class of ‘hyperovals’.
“It was a particularly interesting object in projective space that was named after us – the O’Keefe-Penttila hyperoval. Most of the hyperovals known to date are well understood. But this one is weird and doesn’t fit it into any known family. It is the seed of the next breakthrough in finite geometry – a whole lot of new theory will have to be developed,” Christine says.
Christine’s switch from pure to applied mathematics was first sparked about ten years ago by some work she did for the Portland aluminium smelter.
“The smelter wanted a system to enable them to label their carbon anodes that they were using in their smelting process. So I used an error-correcting code to design patterns of holes to drill into these huge anodes. I really liked the idea that they were drilling holes into anodes according to patterns that I had designed,” Christine says.
Christine is also interested in furthering the links between science, industry and the community.
“We’ve got people, not only in CSIRO, but in universities and organisations that are doing fabulous work, and we have lots of people in industry and the environment with needs or problems – things that could be improved. I often wonder how we can get those two things together a little better. I think we do OK, but I think we can do better,” Christine says.
|IN THIS EDITION:|
The Preventative Health Flagship is a CSIRO initiative and part of the National Research Flagships program that aims to deliver scientific solutions to advance Australia's most important national objectives. One of the largest scientific initiatives ever mounted in Australia, it aligns closely with the Federal Government's National Research Priorities. The initiative brings together our national research resources to deliver breakthroughs in fields ranging from healthcare to light metals and the environment.
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