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New Zealand government to explain its algorithms to stop robo-bias warping policy

But won’t reveal the actual algorithms – or even define what an algorithm is

New Zealand has created what it claims is the world’s first “Algorithm Charter” that sets out how government agencies should devise algorithms and explain their workings.

The premise of the charter [PDF] is that algorithms are mighty useful, but also fallible. It therefore calls for agencies to have “particular focus on those algorithms that have a high risk of unintended consequences and/or have a significant impact if things do go wrong, particularly for vulnerable communities.”

It also outlines how agencies should explain their algorithms to the public and sketches some accountability measures.

Among the requirements are to “maintain transparency” about algorithms with a menu of options that includes publishing plain English documentation of the algorithm, documenting how they are used and publishing information about how data are collected, secured and stored. The charter also calls for agencies to “make sure data is fit for purpose” by “understanding its limitations” and “identifying and managing bias”.

Signatories are also required to:

  • Nominate a point of contact for public inquiries about algorithms;
  • Provide a channel for challenging or appealing of decisions informed by algorithms;
  • Offer clear explanations of the role of humans in decisions informed by algorithms.

But the charter does not define an algorithm beyond labelling them “advanced analytical tools”. Nor does it require government agencies to reveal the algorithms they employ. Signing the charter also appears not to be compulsory. 21 government agencies have signed the charter, including big users of data like the Inland Revenue Department and income support provider The Ministry of Social Development. But many others have not.

“Most New Zealanders recognise the important role algorithms play in supporting government decision-making and policy delivery, however they also want to know that these systems are being used safely and responsibly,” said minister for statistics James Shaw.

“The charter will give people that confidence. It will help to build public trust over the long term, meaning that we can unlock the full potential of data to improve people’s lives.” ®

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