It seems one can question the algorithms: NZ drafts charter for data ethics in the public sector

By Stephen Easton

October 18, 2019

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New Zealand’s government has published a draft “algorithm charter for government agencies” that promises citizens fairness, transparency and accountability around how the government uses data analytics.

The proposed pledge was drawn up by the head of Statistics NZ, Liz MacPherson, who also has the title of chief data steward and has been working on ways to set and maintain standards of ethical data use in government. The draft charter follows an assessment of how the NZ government uses algorithms last year, which found more transparency was required, and the appointment of a Data Ethics Advisory Group in July.

Heads of departments and agencies would sign the charter along with the chief information officers and chief privacy officers. The draft begins:

“Our organisation is committed to transparent and accountable use of operational algorithms and other advanced data analytics techniques that inform decisions significantly impacting on individuals or groups. Over the next 5 years we will use the Principles for the safe and effective use of data and analytics in our work. We will draw on best practice guidance where it exists.”

Following that are 10 points explaining what that means in practice. In the draft, these begin with a pledge to explain clearly how the agency uses algorithms, or explain why it cannot say; national security is given as an example.

Next comes inclusion and consultation: agencies would “embed a Te Ao Māori perspective in algorithm development or procurement”, consider “the perspectives of communities, such as LGBTQI+, Pasifika and people with disabilities” and consult with any other relevant groups or stakeholders.

Agencies would promise to publish information about data collection and storage, provide technical information about the algorithms they use upon request and “use tools and processes” to maintain respect for privacy, ethics, and human rights.

They would also promise to collect data that allows them to review the implementation and operation of algorithms, keep an eye out for unintended consequences like bias, and put these findings through a “robust” peer-review process. Finally, they would clearly explain who is responsible for automated decisions and how they can be challenged or appealed “via a human”.

The NZ charter comes out as Australian international law expert Philip Alston, who is the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, warns governments are using the phrase “digital transformation” as cover to cut welfare spending, build intrusive surveillance systems and generate profits for private-sector partners.

“As humankind moves, perhaps inexorably, towards the digital welfare future it needs to alter course significantly and rapidly to avoid stumbling zombie-like into a digital welfare dystopia,” Alston writes in a new report for the UN General Assembly. And yes, he does mention “the ‘Robodebt’ fiasco in Australia” as one example along with programs in NZ, the UK and Canada.

Alston worries that digital transformation programs are reversing the accountability equation, so individual citizens are increasingly accountable to government agencies when trying to access their rightful entitlements as citizens, rather than the agencies being accountable to the public.

“The process is commonly referred to as ‘digital transformation’ by governments and the tech consultancies that advise them, but this somewhat neutral term should not be permitted to conceal the revolutionary, politically-driven, character of many such innovations,” he writes.

“Systems of social protection and assistance are increasingly driven by digital data and technologies that are used for diverse purposes, including to automate, predict, identify, surveil, detect, target and punish.”

NZ Minister for Statistics James Shaw said the new algorithm charter responds to “growing calls for more transparency in government use of data” as government agencies now commonly use data-driven approaches.

“For example, Work and Income’s Youth Service, NEET, uses an algorithm to identify at-risk school leavers and offer them support,” Shaw said. “But as these techniques grow in scale and sophistication, it’s critical that New Zealanders can be confident their data is being handled appropriately, and that proper safeguards are being applied.”

Shaw said he hoped the charter would lead to more “consistency and collaboration across government agencies” as well as more accountability, linking MacPherson’s work around whole-of-government data ethics to NZ’s commitments to the international Open Government Partnership.

The draft algorithm charter for NZ government agencies is open for public consultation right up to New Year’s Eve.

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