Algorithms quietly run the city of DC and maybe your hometown

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Washington, DC is home to the most powerful government in the world. It is also home to 690,000 people and 29 obscure algorithms that shape their lives. City agencies are using automation to screen housing applicants, predict criminal recidivism, identify food aid fraud, determine if a high school student is likely to drop out, inform youth sentencing decisions, and many other things.

This snapshot of semi-automated city life comes from a new report Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC). The non-profit organization spent 14 months investigating the city’s use of the algorithms and found they were used in 20 agencies, with more than a third deployed in law enforcement or criminal justice. For many systems, city agencies would not provide full details about the operation or use of their technology. The project team concluded that the city is probably using even more algorithms than they were able to uncover.

The findings are notable beyond DC as they add to evidence that many cities have quietly implemented bureaucratic algorithms in their departments, where they can contribute to decisions that affect citizens’ lives.

Government agencies often turn to automation in hopes of adding efficiency or objectivity to bureaucratic processes, but it is often difficult for citizens to know they are at work, and some systems have proven to be discriminatory and lead to decisions that ruin human lives. In Michigan, an unemployment fraud detection algorithm with a 93% error rate caused 40,000 false allegations of fraud. A Analysis 2020 by Stanford University and New York University found that nearly half of federal agencies use some form of automated decision-making systems.

EPIC dug deep into a city’s use of algorithms to provide insight into the many ways they can impact the lives of citizens and encourage people in other places to undertake similar exercises. Ben Winters, who leads the nonprofit’s work on AI and human rights, says Washington was chosen in part because about half of the city’s residents identify as black.

Sharon D. Cole