Emily M. Cantrell

PhD Candidate in Sociology & Social Policy, Princeton University


I research the capabilities and limitations of predictive machine learning algorithms in social services, with a focus on child and family policy. My goal is to contribute to the safe regulation of these rapidly proliferating tools. 
Many social services agencies have begun to use “predictive risk models:” machine learning models that estimate a person’s future risk of some negative experience or behavior, for use as a decision-making aid. For example, child protective services agencies use predictive risk models to estimate the risk that a child will be removed from the home in a future investigation to guide decisions about how to respond to reports of neglect, and legal courts use predictive risk models to estimate the likelihood of crime recidivism to guide decisions about bail. With the rise of predictive risk models comes a host of concerns about accuracy, fairness, and transparency. My dissertation examines the capabilities and limitations of machine learning models that make predictions about individual people’s futures using two datasets: (1) the Future of Families and Child Wellbeing Study, an in-depth longitudinal survey that contains data on many important aspects of participants’ lives starting from birth, and (2) Dutch administrative register data, which contains demographic, economic, employment, school, and social services data from the entire population of the Netherlands. 

My focus is on predictive models in child and family policy. I have been developing expertise in child and family policy since my undergraduate years, through a self-designed undergraduate major in Human Development and Social Policy, an internship in public benefits and community resource navigation, two years as a research assistant at the child and family policy research organization Child Trends, and a job as committee assistant for the Health and Human Services Committee of the New Mexico House of Representatives.


June 2024: Hanzhang Ren and I scored first place in the most recent round of submissions to the PreFer fertility prediction data challenge, putting us in second place across all submissions so far. That means our team is moving into Phase 2 of the challenge!

May 2024: Check out our paper introducing the "REFORMS" checklist of recommendations for conducting and communicating high-quality machine-learning-based science! Huge thanks to Sayash Kapoor and Arvind Narayanan for leading this effort. Sayash, Arvind, and I were interviewed about the work here.