The maddening mystery of algorithms | Otago Daily Times News Online

Some family members resented my aggravation at the arrogant algorithms.

It’s your fault that clicking shit was the bulk of their succinct message.

Let’s be clear. I hadn’t fallen down a rabbit hole that started with cute cat videos and ended with QAnon conspiracy theory supremos.

No, it was my longtime subscription to a mainstream news agency that caused the heartbreak.

I noticed that when I scrolled through their website there was a “Hello Elspeth” and a few recommended articles for me based on my reading history.

Maybe it had always been there and I had been too stupid to see it. Too busy clicking shit, maybe.

The cheerful fake greeting was pretty irritating, but I got mad that they were trying to tell me what I might want to read.

I’m not completely stupid. I know clickbait and algorithms on the internet are used to try to sell us stuff. (Still, having ads for The Trauma Cleaner months after buying the book online made me wonder if someone somewhere was trying to trick me into committing a crime that might make me need the services of a such cleaner. Scary.)

But when a news site suggests it’s found what I want to read, I feel like it’s like an overzealous librarian nudging me to a Dewey decimal number before I’ve had a chance to tell them what I’m looking for.

What did I click on that tells them I’m interested in continued coverage of the masked singer (expletive deleted)? Is it Simon Bridges’ fault? Why didn’t their smart clog algorithm notice that I’ve already read one of the suggested stories, and on their website? I read it again because I wondered if it was different. This was not the case. Who knows what that did to the algorithm’s calculations?

Because I can be as irritating as an overconfident algorithm, I tell the news organization that I’m an adult and don’t need their help choosing what I want to read on their website. I tell them that I would be grateful if they could eliminate this feature which I believe is designed for their benefit and not mine.

They tell me that they don’t have the option to disable this option at the moment. They appreciate my feedback because their teams are always looking for ways to improve their customer experience. I tell them they could improve my experience by stopping “Hello Elspeth”.

The use of invisible algorithms is not reserved for private companies, of course. The government claimed a world first by launching the Algorithm Charter for Aotearoa in 2020 for public agencies using algorithms. The idea is that this will help them strike the right balance between confidentiality and transparency, prevent unconscious bias and reflect the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi. It focuses on uses of algorithms that pose a high or critical risk of unintended harm to New Zealanders.

It seems important to me. What is surprising, then, is that now that the charter has been revised for the first time, this revision appeared without fanfare on the government’s data.govt.nz website a few weeks ago. When I questioned the silence I was told that a further promotion from Stats NZ and Minister is likely in the coming weeks, a blur I expect from those dealing with my queries on this subject.

The review shows that some agencies have struggled to find the expertise they need to measure bias, which the reviewers describe as a key feature of algorithmic monitoring.

Some agencies had disputes over transparency, as it could indirectly affect the operation and effectiveness of algorithms, such as those used to identify criminal activity.

Subject matter experts interviewed for the review pointed out that currently New Zealanders have little opportunity to seek individual redress over decisions made about them as a result of an algorithm. They said that in the UK judicial review had been used to challenge decisions made on the basis of a facial recognition algorithm. Here, in the case of a privacy complaint, a person can go to the Privacy Commissioner, but there is no such thing for algorithms.

It was good to see that those who participated in the review recognized the need for more proactive engagement with the public to build public awareness and trust. However, converting the documentation to plain English was seen as a challenge.

Clearly there is still a lot to do.

As for my algorithm problem, the naughty child in me wants to click only on the silliest, most trivial stories I can find on the news website to see what that will do to the “Hello Elspeth”. Maybe that was the plan.

Elspeth McLean is a writer from Dunedin.

Sharon D. Cole