New York City moves to create accountability for algorithms

Lauren Kirchner at ArsTechnica: “The algorithms that play increasingly central roles in our lives often emanate from Silicon Valley, but the effort to hold them accountable may have another epicenter: New York City. Last week, the New York City Council unanimously passed a bill to tackle algorithmic discrimination—the first measure of its kind in the country.

The algorithmic accountability bill, waiting to be signed into law by Mayor Bill de Blasio, establishes a task force that will study how city agencies use algorithms to make decisions that affect New Yorkers’ lives, and whether any of the systems appear to discriminate against people based on age, race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or citizenship status. The task force’s report will also explore how to make these decision-making processes understandable to the public.

The bill’s sponsor, Council Member James Vacca, said he was inspired by ProPublica’s investigation into racially biased algorithms used to assess the criminal risk of defendants….

A previous, more sweeping version of the bill had mandated that city agencies publish the source code of all algorithms being used for “targeting services” or “imposing penalties upon persons or policing” and to make them available for “self-testing” by the public. At a hearing at City Hall in October, representatives from the mayor’s office expressed concerns that this mandate would threaten New Yorkers’ privacy and the government’s cybersecurity.

The bill was one of two moves the City Council made last week concerning algorithms. On Thursday, the committees on health and public safety held a hearing on the city’s forensic methods, including controversial tools that the chief medical examiner’s office crime lab has used for difficult-to-analyze samples of DNA.

As a ProPublica/New York Times investigation detailed in September, an algorithm created by the lab for complex DNA samples has been called into question by scientific experts and former crime lab employees.

The software, called the Forensic Statistical Tool, or FST, has never been adopted by any other lab in the country….(More)”.