NYC’s algorithm task force was ‘a waste,’ member says

New York City has released its long-awaited report on government algorithms, but not everyone is happy with the result.

In 2017, the city passed a local law to national fanfare. The legislation, Local Law 49, established a task force with the goal of examining how hidden algorithms oversee life in the city. Local stakeholders and advocates were convened, and charged with producing a report with recommendations for using automated tools.

But the task force quickly grew tense, as some members questioned the city’s commitment to transparency. Members of the task force said they had to push to be given examples of automated tools used by the city, among other issues.

The final report from the task force was released yesterday, but it isn’t what every member hoped for. “It’s a waste, really,” says Meredith Whittaker, co-founder of the AI Now Institute and a member of the task force. “This is a sad precedent.”

Ultimately, she says, the report, penned by city officials, “reflects the city’s view and disappointingly fails to leave out a lot of the dissenting views of task force members.” Members of the task force were given presentations on automated systems that Whittaker says “felt more like pitches or endorsements.” Efforts to make specific policy changes, like developing informational cards on algorithms, were scrapped, she says.

The 33-page report released instead makes broader recommendations. The report suggests the city make organizational changes in the government to manage the use of algorithms, and establish formal ways for reporting the use of such systems.

The report also suggests creating a process to determine whether some systems have a disproportionate affect on certain communities. Whittaker says the report is so broad the city could have produced it without convening the task force.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the city said the task force “was the first of its kind in the country, and it tackled the complex issues around the systems and tools our city uses to help us make decisions that affect millions of New Yorkers.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio, in a separate announcement yesterday, issued an executive order creating an “algorithms management and policy officer” in the city government.

“The Task Force included people with diverse backgrounds in research, government, the private sector, advocacy, and human rights, among others,” the spokesperson said. “While not everyone agreed on every issue, discussions over 18 months resulted in a final report that met consensus.”

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