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.
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.
Your weekly digest on social platforms:
- A different take on free speech and fake news at Foreign Policy: “The power of free speech is inextricably tied to the opportunity to be heard and believed, and to persuade. Fake news undermines precisely these sources of power.”
- Bloomberg reports Facebook is looking to hire employees who already possess national security clearances to help prevent foreign interference in elections.
- Does the rise of smartphones mean the death of Wikipedia editors? Andrew Lih wonders in The New York Times’s Sunday Review about the future of the online encyclopedia. In Wired, Hossein Derakhshan responds, considering the history of changing media and the efforts to record humanity.
- Irony of the day: Fake news ads on fact-checking sites.
Other notable stories
- A profile in Chicago Magazine of Jim DeRogatis, a music critic who chased and kept chasing allegations against R. Kelly. Teaser: “‘They will call on Christmas Eve, and they will call on New Year’s Day, and they will call at midnight, and they will call at 6 in the morning,’ says DeRogatis of the parents, aunts, and uncles of young women—and in some cases the women themselves—who have reached out with accusations of sexual abuse at the hands of R. Kelly.”
- Nieman Lab goes behind the scenes of The Daily, The New York Times’s podcast, with “self-effacing” host Michael Barbaro.
- One more profile: For CJR, Michael Kassel writes about Joseph Bernstein, “the beat reporter behind BuzzFeed’s blockbuster alt-right investigation.”
- Selective coverage—choosing the prioritize certain reporting projects over others—is a problem across the journalism spectrum. CJR’s Jon Allsop highlights how selectively reporting on campus protests can play into a broader cultural narrative.
- Amazon Studios’s Roy Price has resigned. ICYMI: Kim Masters on trying to publish allegations against Price.
- Happy Belated National Spreadsheet Day? A good time to learn about office workers’ most loved and hated tool.