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Vocations: A Linguist Who Cracks the Code in Names to Predict Ethnicity

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Lisa Spira is the director of research and product development at Ethnic Technologies. Credit Christian Hansen for The New York Times

Lisa Spira, 30, is director of research and product development at Ethnic Technologies in South Hackensack, N.J.

Q. What is your educational background?

A. My degree from Syracuse University was in linguistics. I studied a branch of linguistics called onomastics, which involves the history and origin of proper names. In my field I am known as an onomastician.

Have you always been fascinated with names?

Yes. After my sister was born, I took my parents’ baby-naming book and never gave it back. I even added new names. I had Playmobil toys with about 150 plastic people. Not only did I name every one, but I also gave them name tags.

What do you do at Ethnic Technologies?

I lead a team that develops our software that predicts individuals’ ethnic origins based on their full names, addresses and ZIP codes. We build predictive algorithms based on patterns in names from various ethnic groups. We also track demographic data that pinpoints ethnic breakdowns by geography. We identify 158 distinct ethnicities, with further segmentation for Hispanics and African-Americans.

Can you give an example of how your company’s software works?

Let’s hypothetically take the name of an American: Yeimary Moran. We see the common name Mary inside her first name, but unlike the name Rosemary, for example, we know that the letter string “eimary” is Hispanic. Her surname could be Irish or Hispanic. So then we look at where our Yeimary Moran lives, which is Miami. From our software, we discover that her neighborhood is more Hispanic than Irish. Customer testing and feedback show that our software is over 90 percent accurate in most ethnicities, so we can safely deduce that this Yeimary Moran is Hispanic.

What types of companies come to you for your services?

Any company that wants to target its goods or services to a particular ethnic group. A perfect example is cosmetics. African-Americans, Asians, Hispanics and Caucasians may prefer different cosmetics.

What if companies want to target ethnic groups for the wrong reason?

We vet every potential client to make sure it is reputable. We work hard to make sure clients don’t have suspicious motivations for using this information. Our contracts specify allowable uses.

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