Providence Talks’ Aims to Boost Vocabulary Through Surveillance

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In the Magazine
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IT SOUNDS like a great idea: a prize-winning project, called Providence Talks, will help children in Rhode Island boost their vocabulary skills. But it also has a creepy side. The program, which won a $5 million prize from the Bloomberg Philanthropies last March, aims to address the fact that kids in underprivileged families often hear far fewer words during the course of the day than those from more affluent backgrounds. As a result, they start kindergarten with smaller vocabularies and lower levels of comprehension. To try to fix that, the city of Providence has developed a plan to have toddlers wear little digital recorders that, for 16 hours, one day a month, will tape everything that is said to them and around them. That data is broken down so social workers and nurses can help parents help their kids, figuring out more ways to expose them to more words. It’s all voluntary, it’s free, and it’s supposed to be confidential. But it’s also going to generate a lot of data about what’s overheard in the kids’ neighborhoods. As Christine Rosen wrote recently on, the “growing world of social-engineering surveillance” poses some “significant challenges to the future of privacy.”

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