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#23things: (algorithmic) transparency and diversity

This week on the #23things course that I am participating in together with my colleagues I read an article on diversity, described thus:

Can computers be racist? Big data, inequality, and discrimination– An excellent article, including video of a lecture given by Dr. Latanya Sweeney, on how big data can perpetuate and exacerbate existing systems of racism, discrimination, and inequality (see this week’s full text here)

I found the article really stimulating not least because I am interested in the growing movement behind public interest technologists (link to the full article). One paragraph in particular caught my eye, specifically a recommendation on how we may overcome the bias in relation to inequality inherent in big data practices:

Pressing for “algorithmic transparency.” By ensuring that the algorithms underpinning critical systems like public education and criminal justice are open and transparent, we can better understand their biases and fight for change.

It’s a recommendation I think makes a lot of sense, but I have come across many instances where this isn’t the case. In many cases only the expert developers involved in creating the system really understand how it works. That leads me to consider where efforts to make algorithms underpinning critical systems more open and transparent will meet the growing expertise professionals in for example education need to have in order to approach the technology at their disposal in an effective way.

Yet while the article has certainly prompted me to think and read further, it’s also reminded me that even the simplest or most commonplace technology can create problems. #23things uses examples like exploring accessibility features on mobile devices or the use of emoji/bitmoji to get us thinking about wider issues and those are easy to relate to. Anyone who like me functions as tech support for family members for example has likely been grateful that a mobile phone’s text size or colour contrast adjusted to suit the needs of elderly users. There is a huge spectrum of issues that opens up before you when you start focusing on accessibility and diversity.

For me, these two of the #23things are a useful reminder that this is an essential part of what we do every day and that there is always a lot of room for improvement.