Algorithms aren’t just deciding the content of social media feeds and online advertising anymore. To guard against bias creep and streamline decisions about the allocation of resources, many urban areas across the country are turning to these automated decision systems. But how do we ensure that the algorithms are the impartial arbiters we expect them to be? Drexel University professor Julia Stoyanovich is part of the first group in the nation helping to answer this question in the biggest urban area in the world. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio tapped Stoyanovich to serve on the city’s Automated Decision Systems Task Force, a team charged with creating a process for reviewing algorithms through the lens of fairness, equity and accountability.
“As data and technology become more central to the work of city government, the algorithms we use to aid decision making must be aligned with our goals and values,” de Blasio said in a statement announcing the task force. “The establishment of the Automated Decision Systems Task Force is an important first step towards greater transparency and equity in our use of technology.”
The city currently uses algorithms to determine things such as the location of firehouses, placement of students in public schools, disbursal of food stamps, distribution of police officers, and allocation of public housing. They’re also helping to sniff out Medicaid fraud and manage the work of building inspectors.
The Task Force is the product of New York City’s algorithmic accountability law, which was passed in 2017 to ensure transparency in how the city uses automated decision systems. By 2019, the group must “provide recommendations about how agency automated decision systems data may be shared with the public and how agencies may address instances where people are harmed by agency automated decision systems,” according to one of the provisions of the law.
“It’s an honor to be part of the first group looking at how algorithms can be used in a fair, transparent and responsible way to guide government decisions,” said Stoyanovich, who is a professor of computer science in Drexel’s College of Computing & Informatics. “Data-driven algorithms have a profound effect on people’s lives and have the potential to improve society. For this potential to become reality, we must work to make explicit the kinds of legal and ethical norms, and policy decisions, that these algorithms embed.”
Stoyanovich is regarded as a thought leader in data and algorithmic ethics She is the leader of an National Science Foundation research project to develop “Foundations of Responsible Data Management.” She also serves on the Association for Computing Machinery’s Code of Ethics Task Force and is part of an initiative supported by Bloomberg, BrightHive and Data for Democracy, that is working to create a data science code of ethics. In addition, she is developing a series of seminars on the topic for the State Department’s Fulbright Program.
While New York is the first city in the country to pass an algorithmic transparency law, many are being deliberate in the way they deploy data-driven algorithms. Stoyanovich works with Philadelphia’s Office of Open Data and Digital Transformation, which is guiding the creation of accessible and effective digital services for the city.
On the New York task force, Stoyanovich joins leaders from government and human rights groups, representatives from the city’s Social Services, Police, Transportation and Education departments, as well as the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, the Administration for Children’s Services and other experts from law and academia.
“Cities must operate through the lens of understanding the many facts that make up their diverse mosaics,” said Brooklyn Borough President Eric L. Adams. “This algorithmic data task force, which as an incredibly broad cross-section of members, is a welcome step in ensuring that the City’s day-to-day functions and resource allocations meet New Yorkers’ needs while addressing generational disparities. Equity should be at the forefront of all service delivery in every function of our municipal government.”