Algorithms in decision-making

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The House of Commons science and technology committee launched an inquiry into ‘Algorithms in decision-making’ following a fantastic pitch from our policy manager Dr Stephanie Mathisen. The new committee took up the inquiry and have reported on their recommendations.

Read the committee’s report and recommendations.

“I’m delighted to see the committee take this first step in holding government to account for public sector use of algorithms in decision-making. It is crucial that the public know when and how algorithms are being used to make decisions that affect their lives. Government can make a strong start by implementing the committee’s recommendations that it should produce, maintain and publish a list of where algorithms are used, and that a minister should be appointed to provide government-wide oversight of such algorithms and where they are used by the public sector. Government must further ensure there are mechanisms for individuals to challenge algorithmic decisions and seek redress when necessary. As recognised by the committee, these issues are not problems of the future but require urgent government action.” – Stephanie Mathisen, policy manager, Sense about Science

As Steph argues, algorithms — quite rapidly and without debate — have come to replace humans in making decisions that affect many aspects of our lives, from criminal justice to education. Algorithms in themselves are neither ‘good’ nor ‘bad’, but where the public has little access to information about the workings of algorithms in decision-making, there is a serious lack of transparency and therefore accountability and choice.

This is an issue that many of you have raised with us, especially since the 2013 Sense about Science lecture given by Cory Doctorow.

Thanks to all of you who have let the committee know how important this issue is.

“Algorithms are being used in everything from sifting job applications, calculating credit scores and offering loans and mortgages to deciding whether to release prisoners on bail. These are crucial moments, and the impact of those decisions can be enormous.

Of course, manual decision procedures would have existed before the involvement of a computer. What’s different about computer algorithms is the sheer volume and complexity of the data that can be factored in to decisions, and the potential to apply error and discrimination systematically.

The lack of transparency around algorithms is a serious issue. If we don’t know exactly how they arrive at decisions, how can we judge the quality of those decisions? Or challenge them when we disagree?”

Read the rest of Steph’s op-ed: Algorithms in decision-making inquiry: Stephanie Mathisen on challenging MPs to investigate accountability, Public Technology (28 Feb 2017)


Select coverage

MPs to investigate the use of algorithms in decision-making, Public Technology (28 Feb 2017)

Algorithms in decision-making inquiry launched, Commons Select Committee (28 Feb 2017)

UK Parliament to hold inquiry into algorithmic transparency. BoingBoing (1 Mar 2017)

Published: 28 February 2017, updated 23 May 2018