The city of New York will set up a commission to analyze the algorithms that municipal offices are using for the provision of their services, in search of possible discrimination based on gender, age, religion or nationality. The committee will examine all the algorithms currently in use and decide for each case whether it is serving the public interest—or what types of discrimination it conceals.
The law establishing this task force was recently approved by the City Council at the initiative of Democratic city councilor James Vacca, and is waiting for the (expected) approval of Mayor Bill de Blasio. The city of New York is thus willing to apply the concept of “algorithm accountability,” given that, under their veneer of objectivity, these processes (mainly of an IT nature) that are helping individuals, businesses and institutions make decisions, are actually hiding politically relevant biases that have real-world consequences.
The word “algorithm” has taken on a generally negative connotation, as standing for the menacing technology that controls our lives. Actually, this Arabic word originally means any sequence of instructions for achieving a certain purpose: for instance, the recipe for Amatriciana pasta or instructions for assembling Legos are examples of completely unthreatening algorithms. The notion has become problematic only with the spread of computers, whose processes, because of the speed at which the algorithms are run and the amount of data they process, remain hidden from us. For example, whenever we run a Google search, we remain ignorant of the innumerable statistical and logical assessments that are happening on Google’s servers, which is to say the algorithm that the search engine is using.