Domenico “Mimmo” Parisi, an Italian-born Mississippi State University sociology professor and data scientist, has spent the last two decades getting to know Mississippians.
Specifically, at the helm of a little-known Mississippi State University research center called NSPARC, Parisi gathers and analyzes millions of pieces of data about citizens, including where they attended college, whether they received food stamps or unemployment benefits, how much income they earn and more.
Now, Parisi is returning to his native Italy with everything he’s learned about the workforce and human behavior to accomplish what he hasn’t been able to do in Mississippi — defeat poverty.
Italy’s right-wing, anti-immigrant government has tapped Parisi to run the National Agency for Active Labor Policies, the country’s public employment office also known as Anpal.
Parisi’s appointment has also raised eyebrows overseas, prompting questions from news organizations in Italy about how a professor from the poorest U.S. state can help solve poverty in their country. Even more questions center on the connections between Mississippi political leaders, the architects of the Brexit campaign and alleged data mining now under investigation in several countries.
“The fact that this always seems to comes back to data projects — what is happening to the data of Mississippians?” said Emma Briant, a British researcher at the George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs specializing in propaganda and political communication. “When we give data to governments or academics, you know, we trust them to be using it for the good of Mississippi. For example, we don’t necessarily think they’re going to go off to another country and help a far-right group with it.”
In March, Mississippi Today published an investigation into Parisi’s use of data and statistics as well as the funding behind his roughly $15 million research lab, which paints a picture of Mississippi that suit the political agendas of the state’s elected and business leadership.
Briant raised concerns over Mississippians’ data serving as the basis for developing new tools in Italy, let alone “if the AI tools he developed for Mississippi put a propagandistic spin on their use of statistics.”
Parisi told Mississippi Today in February that no Mississippi data, de-identified or otherwise, will make the move with him to Italy.
Briant asserts that’s beside the point. “Even if he’s not taking the actual data itself, the models would surely have been derived from it. They wouldn’t work if it wasn’t for that original data, and what they built on the basis of it,” Briant said. “Did Mississippians approve that use?”
A Mississippi State press release announcing his departure included few details about Parisi’s new position, including how he planned to use the expertise he developed in Mississippi in the role. The release did state that Parisi will have no official university duties while on leave and congratulated him on the “recognition of his expertise and passion to use data science to make a difference.”
In a February interview, Parisi played down concerns raised by skeptics like Briant, calling it an honor for a Mississippi resident to be tapped for the prestigious post in Rome.
“They’re not calling a Harvard professor. They’ve called a professor from Mississippi State, one of the best data scientists in the world. I think it’s very flattering,” Parisi told Mississippi Today.
Parisi also denied any connections or involvement with Brexit backers raised in the Italian press, telling Mississippi Today, “That is the most bizarre — I have nothing to do with that. Even the idea (that I’m connected to them) is absolutely insane.”
“That’s kind of, dishonesty at its best,” he said.
Parisi’s recent appointment in Italy, a government whose leaders have promoted the same anti-immigrant attitudes that contributed to Britain leaving the European Union in 2016, sheds new light on Mississippi’s curious connection to far-right figures.
Mississippi first publicly welcomed European parliament member and campaigner Nigel Farage — nicknamed “Mr. Brexit” for his role in convincing British voters to leave the European Union — on a stage at the Mississippi Coliseum in Jackson during President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign rally.
Eventually, Gov. Phil Bryant connected Farage’s partners Arron Banks, owner of Eldon Insurance and the primary Brexit bankroller, and Andy Wigmore — together the “Bad Boys of Brexit” — with office space at University of Mississippi to develop a now-defunct artificial intelligence data project, Big Data Dolphin.
“We’ve started an operation in Ole Miss University in Mississippi which is the centre for artificial intelligence in the world, who knew?” Wigmore told Briant in October of 2017, according to transcripts. “And, and, and the guy that runs it, he’s like the most extraordinary data scientist.”
It’s unclear which data scientist Wigmore is referencing. The project is still the subject of legal scrutiny, including a motion filed Wednesday to renew a lawsuit against Eldon and Big Data Dolphin, in which British group Fair Vote Project alleges Banks and his associates transferred and stored the data of British citizens in Mississippi. The defendants, as well as University of Mississippi, deny the allegations.
“There’s only one person in Mississippi that would lead you to believe Mississippi is the artificial intelligence center of the world, and that’s Parisi,” Dorsey Carson, Fair Vote Project’s local attorney, told Mississippi Today. “If you’re going to store big data or use big data in Mississippi, you’re probably going to use NSPARC.”
As Banks and his colleagues developed their Mississippi project, allegations began to surface that the pro-Brexit Leave.EU campaign and Eldon had illegally swapped data to target voters in hopes of advancing Brexit. An investigation by the UK’s data protection watchdog, Information Commissioner’s Office, led to fines against Banks in February for sending unsolicited marketing emails.
A former employee with Cambridge Analytica, which notoriously mined Facebook data to influence Americans in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, testified in Hinds County last June that Banks took the idea for his Mississippi project from her company.
A judge initially dismissed Fair Vote Project’s lawsuit in late June for lack of personal jurisdiction. Eldon and Big Data Dolphin then filed a petition for protective order against University of Mississippi, seeking to seal documents regarding the Mississippi project. In a motion to renew the suit Wednesday, Carson argued, in part, their petition against the university nulls the jurisdiction issue in Fair Vote Project’s lawsuit.
He also writes, “Big Data Dolphins and Eldon Insurance have a relationship with data scientist Dr. Domenico “Mimmo” Parisi, the founder and head of National Strategic Planning & Analysis Research Center at Mississippi State University, who recently accepted a position with the Five Star Movement, a right-wing political party in Italy. Dr. Parisi is the Executive Director of the National Strategic Planning & Analysis Research Center and a professor of Sociology at Mississippi State University, and one of the foremost data scientists in the world. Accordingly, this new information regarding Dr. Parisi’s European political connections sheds light on the true nature of the Defendants’ relationship with Mississippi — these new facts lead Plaintiffs to believe that while the Defendants’ physical location may have been intended to be housed at the University of Mississippi, the home of the Defendants’ data may have been at Mississippi State University and with Dr. Mimmo Parisi.”
As scrutiny over the deal mounted, NSPARC continued to position itself as the leading data firm in the state.
In April of 2018, Mississippi State University and NSPARC officials cut the ribbon on NSPARC’s state-of-the-art, 3,300-square-foot data center that can store 400 terabytes of data, which translates to roughly 100 billion pages of text (assuming a one-page plain text file is four kilobytes).
In August, Gov. Bryant presented Parisi with the “2018 Excellence in Government Award.”
A month later, Parisi met with Italian Five Star Movement (M5S) leader Luigi Di Maio, deputy prime minister of Italy and minister of economic development, when he visited Italy for a workforce development conference. The party and its leaders gained prominence using increasingly common xenophobic rhetoric about keeping migrants out of Italy.
Next thing Parisi knew, a photo of himself and Di Maio posted to the Italian official’s Instagram account had generated buzz about the Mississippi professor becoming “the guy that was going to change the workforce system in the country,” Parisi told Mississippi Today.
“One of the criticisms was, ‘How can we use Mississippi as a model? Because Mississippi is one of the poorest states in the country, one of the smallest states,’” Parisi said. “I said, ‘Because of that, we have to find a way that is going to allow us to do more with less. Because we are a poor state, we have more barriers and challenges than other states. So we have to find another way to knock down those barriers, such as connecting people in a more fair and just way … opportunity for all.”
Most recently, Farage was in Italy, lobbying Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini to block UK’s latest request for a Brexit delay, the Scotland newspaper The Scotsman reported, risking a no-deal exit on the March 29 deadline. The UK has yet to approve a Withdrawal Agreement, or deal, which will determine the terms of their divorce from the Union and establish a transition period. Italy did not veto the short delay last month and the European Union appears poised to continue granting Britain’s Brexit delays for now.
Parisi’s new position includes administering the nation’s new $8 billion public income and workforce development project, which aims to pull people out of poverty, providing the cash assistance needed for every household to reach the poverty line. Similar to the cash assistance programs in the U.S., the program requires participants to do community service, training courses and accept one of their three first job offers, Reuters reported.
According to NSPARC employee Jonathan Barlow’s LinkedIn page, Barlow helped develop a “case study” — a narrative with matching graphics — of a fictional participant in the citizenship income program, showing how it would work, which was presented to Italian leaders and news media in October.
To facilitate the job search component, Parisi plans to introduce the Italian government to the online job portal similar to Indeed or Monster that NSPARC developed and launched in 2014. The app is called Mississippi Works, also the name of Bryant’s signature workforce initiative.
According to reports in Italian media, the job-matching software behind Mississippi Works is the centerpiece of Italy’s plan to revamp its workforce.
The virtual, automated system can replace caseworkers in physical unemployment centers, Parisi said, improving efficiency in government. When he introduced the concept at an Italian conference, the audience was “blown away,” Parisi said.
“I know many (in Mississippi) have never appreciated what we’ve done with the SLDS, the Lifetracks, with Mississippi Works,” Parisi said. “…Nobody has ever been able to create the technology like the one we’ve done here at Mississippi State.”
Dozens of media outlets in Italy, including Huffington Post, questioned Parisi’s appointment, deriding his credentials, as one article put it, “professor of the second university of Mississippi, one of the most irrelevant American states.”
Reporters also speculated whether any conflicts of interest would arise were Parisi to head the nation’s employment office, then acquire and implement the same job-matching software he developed.
They’ve also questioned how Parisi can run Anpal considering his current position at Mississippi State and other quasi-government positions, such as chairing the State Early Childhood Advisory Council.
The governor’s office declined to answer questions about any leadership changes on the council.
A university statement said Parisi will have no official university duties during his leave but will be able to communicate with NSPARC staff as needed. “Mississippi State officials have worked to identify any conflicts of interest and to ensure that Dr. Parisi’s leave conforms to university policy … as well as applicable laws and regulations,” the news release reads.
Parisi said he plans to be in Mississippi roughly one week a month, which prompted one Italian news site, Linkiesta, to pen an article under the headline “Air Force Parisi,” which questioned Parisi’s requests for travel reimbursement for monthly international trips back home.
Mississippi Today requested copies of ethics agreements between Parisi and the university regarding his use of human research subjects or their data, but university officials argued the records are exempt under the Mississippi Public Records Act. In a subsequent request for blank ethics forms, the university sent Mississippi Today a link to the Office of Research Compliance website.
Parisi himself acknowledges the questions have merit.
“At the end of the day, they are raising very good questions. The conflict of interest is very important. It needs to be addressed. They’re raising the questions of whether or not I may do this for personal interest, which is a good question,” Parisi told Mississippi Today in February. “…I would say to them, give me some time and you will see the facts speak for themselves. I’m an honest, decent man. I’m not doing this for any interest other than trying to make a difference in the lives of many poor people in Italy.”
Parisi said his appointment has become politicized. As for conflicts of interest or Mississippi State University’s potential ownership of the analytical processes Parisi has developed there, “I’m a professor; I can do anything I want as a professor,” Parisi said. “…You have academic freedom. Whatever you discover is for the public.”
Parisi explained that what he offers to the Italian government is “the process of turning human activity into data” and that the technology to achieve this can be found anywhere.
Parisi told Mississippi Today he is not selling to Italy the Mississippi Works software developed at NSPARC for €100 million, approximately $112 million, as reported in at least three Italian newspapers, but “preferred not to answer” the same question from Italian reporters after a public presentation March 27.
On behalf of multiple university vice presidents and NSPARC employees, Mississippi State University spokesman Sid Salter rebuffed several interview requests regarding Parisi’s new appointment, saying it’s “a personnel matter,” and the university “therefore has no comment on speculation surrounding that issue.”
Parisi’s interim replacement to head NSPARC will be Allen Parrish, the university’s associate vice president for research development, whose expertise is in military cybersecurity.