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Algorithmic Governance: What is Missing from the Debate?

March 18, 2016 @ 8:00 am - 5:00 pm

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The past decade has seen an explosion in big data analytics and the use of algorithm-based systems to assist, supplement, or replace human decision-making. This is true in private industry and in public governance. It includes, for example, the use of algorithms in healthcare policy and treatment, in identifying potential tax cheats, and in stopping terrorist plotters. Such systems are attractive in light of the increasing complexity and interconnectedness of society; the general ubiquity and efficiency of ‘smart’ technology, sometimes known as the ‘Internet of Things’; and the cutbacks to government services post-2008.

This trend towards algorithmic governance poses a number of unique challenges to effective and legitimate public-bureaucratic decision-making. Although many are already concerned about the threat to privacy, there is more at stake in the rise of algorithmic governance than this right alone. Algorithms are step-by-step computer-coded instructions for taking some input (e.g. tax return/financial data), processing it, and converting it into an output (e.g. recommendation for audit). When algorithms are used to supplement or replace public decision-making, political values and policies have to be translated into computer code. The coders and designers are given a set of instructions (a project ‘spec’) to guide them in this process, but such project specs are often vague and incomplete. Programmers exercise considerable autonomy when translating these requirements into code. The difficulty is that most programmers are unaware of the values and biases that can feed into this process and fail to consider how those values and biases can manifest themselves in practice, invisibly undermining fundamental rights. This is compounded by the fact that ethics and law are not part of the training of most programmers. Indeed, many view the technology as a value-neutral tool. They consequently ignore the ethical ‘gap’ between policy and code. This workshop will bring together an interdisciplinary group of scholars and experts to address the ethical gap between policy and code.

Those interested in attending should contact:


Dr John Danaher <john.danaher@nuigalway.ie>

Dr Rónán Kennedy <ronan.m.kennedy@nuigalway.ie>


Download Details & a Schedule (.pdf)