Picture the Homeless and Legal Aid Society are Called Upon to Catch Faulty and Biased Algorithms, Reported by CityLimits

Posted on February 8, 2018

CityViews: De Blasio Must Lead Effort to Make Government Accountable for its Algorithms

Originally posted by CityLimits on February 8, 2018
Written by Joshua Norkin

The use of hidden algorithms in everything from online shopping, to social media, to election redistricting already impacts our daily lives. Some financial experts have argued that the reckless use of algorithms crashed the economy, and tech journalists have investigated whether algorithms used by social media giants like Twitter and Facebook resulted in Donald Trump’s election to the presidency. Former Wall Street quantitative analyst and Harvard Ph.D. data scientist Cathy O’Neil has called these algorithms “Weapons of Math Destruction.” In her book of the same title, she warns that large decision-making datasets and secret algorithms have the combined potential to harm society in ways society, lawmakers and courts can’t detect, let alone redress. Civil rights advocates are concerned with both the fairness and the lack of transparency of these algorithms. In a widely read piece about the use of a sentencing algorithm in Florida, data scientists found that the algorithm was biased against Black people. In December, the New York City Council passed a bill that requires Mayor de Blasio to create a task force to examine the use of algorithms by New York City agencies. The task force will draft a report that will identify the use of algorithms in various government agencies and identify the risk that these algorithms may be harming our communities. The task force will then issue recommendations on oversight, fairness and transparency. Ideally, the task force will prioritize voices from impacted communities, particularly communities of color who may suffer outsized harm by the use of algorithms. People like Khalil Cumberbatch of the Legal Action Center and Monique George of Picture the Homeless should be appointed, along with organizers and data scientists from Data for Black Lives. The task force must also include representation from non-profits like the Legal Aid Society and the New York Civil Liberties Union who serve communities impacted by these tools and have previously voiced criticism for the use of algorithms. The bill also presents an opportunity to shape one of the most important conversations of the digital age—the mayor must ensure that it is the priorities of the people that prevail.

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