Tow Center

The media today: Algorithms at City Hall

October 18, 2017
Image: AP

The New York City Council Committee for Technology meeting on Monday was the most attended hearing in the committee’s recent history, recalled Chair James Vacca. The topic? A proposed bill that would require algorithmic transparency among New York City agencies.

“Algorithm” is a loose term at best, but in this case it refers to automated risk-assessment or decision-making processes used by city government. The best known example is probably predictive policing, thanks to a report by ProPublica that uncovered racial bias in software used nationwide. While we don’t know the extent of how algorithms are used (there is no oversight for the often-third-party-vendor-provided code), they are ubiquitous; one witness called to the stand said he’d be surprised if any agency did not use at least one algorithm. Vacca cited the use of algorithms to assign students to high schools, and a formula used to determine fire protection services.

ICYMI: The story behind “one of the best reported pieces of the year”

Algorithms are making determinations about the services that citizens receive, argued Vacca, and therefore should be democratically accountable. The proposed bill requires that the source code for algorithms used by the city be published online, which raises proprietary concerns for tech companies that produce these algorithms. The bill also mandates that citizens be able to submit data individually, be processed by the algorithm, and see their outcomes accordingly.

While I would hazard that the bill itself needs to go through important changes before it is feasible, the unusual popularity of the meeting indicates how significant such legislation would be. The upside for journalism is it would make opaque parts of the government easier to report on. No one in the room disagreed that algorithmic transparency itself was not a laudable goal. The question was simply how to accomplish it. Vacca hoped to make New York City a leader in the country.


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Nausicaa Renner is digital editor of CJR.