As the conversation around how algorithms can perpetuate systemic biases–whether race, gender, or income-based–continues, New York City passed a bill designed to hold algorithms accountable.
As the nonprofit news organization ProPublica explains, the bill is the first of its kind in the U.S. It was passed unanimously by the New York City Council and is expected to be signed by Mayor Bill de Blasio. It will create a “task force” to look at the problem and suggest a solution. That means it will investigate how the city’s agencies use algorithms to make decisions that affect New York residents–and whether those algorithms show any signs of bias.
The task force will also provide recommendations about how the city should communicate how it uses these kinds of tools with the public, including letting people request an explanation for a decision made by an algorithm, and establishing a system of recourse for people who’ve been harmed by these algorithms.
City Council member James Vacca, who sponsored the bill, points to the groundbreaking 2016 investigation by ProPublica on the topic of machine bias in criminal sentencing as the inspiration for the measure. It’s an example of how reporting on algorithms can actually change public policy. While the law hasn’t been implemented yet, it has the potential to lead to more transparency about how algorithms work within the government and whether they are contributing to systemic inequality and bias. Hopefully, more cities and states will follow suit.