New Zealand launches draft algorithm charter for government agencies

By on 23/10/2019 | Updated on 24/09/2020
Agency chief executives who sign the charter would commit to take the perspectives of communities such as LGBTQI+, Pacific islanders and people with disabilities into account when using algorithms

The New Zealand government has launched a draft ‘algorithm charter’ that sets out how agencies should analyse data in a way that is fair, ethical and transparent.

The charter, which is open for public consultation, sets out 10 points that agencies would have to adhere to. These include pledging to explain how significant decisions are informed by algorithms or, where it cannot – for national security reasons, for example – explain the reason; taking into account the perspectives of communities, such as LGBTQI+, Pacific islanders and people with disabilities; and identifying and consulting with groups or stakeholders with an interest in algorithm development.

Agencies would also have to publish information about how data is collected and stored; use tools and processes to ensure that privacy, ethics, and human rights considerations are integrated as part of algorithm development and procurement; and periodically assess decisions made by algorithms for unintended bias.

They would commit to implementing a “robust” peer-review process, and have to explain clearly who is responsible for automated decisions and what methods exist for challenge or appeal “via a human”.

Humane AI

The charter was drawn up by Liz MacPherson, head of Stats NZ and government chief data steward, and follows a 2018 assessment of how government uses algorithms, which found that more transparency is required. The Data Ethics Advisory Group, which has been operational since July, was also established in response to the assessment’s findings.

“The key reason for doing the algorithm assessment report was to give government agencies some sense that we needed to stocktake,” MacPherson told Global Government Forum. “The conclusion we reached was that our use of algorithms, and particularly sophisticated algorithms, across the public service was relatively low and that meant that we have a real opportunity to be proactive, to do the groundwork and provide the capability in a way which means we can ensure good practice starts to be embedded early on.”

“There is a real interest across New Zealand and indeed globally to make sure that we are taking the use of AI and sophisticated algorithms really seriously,” she added. “The charter is a response to that.”

Balance between innovation and transparency

The draft charter asks members of the public for feedback on whether it provides them with increased confidence in how government uses algorithms; whether it should apply to operational algorithms; whether it has got the balance right to enable innovation while retaining transparency; and whether it captures their concerns and expectations and those of their community or organisation. Public consultation is open until 31 December.

Although it is envisaged that the charter would initially be voluntary, it is expected that most heads of departments and agencies would commit to it, along with chief information officers and chief privacy officers.

“Not only does the charter encourage agency chief executives to start thinking about improving transparency, it also gives us a real focus on what needs to be done to go alongside that,” MacPherson said. “How do we think about building the capability? It’s one thing to put a charter in place, but it’s another to think about how we’re going to make sure government agencies are well-equipped to meet the requirements of the charter.”

One of the things she and her colleagues are looking into, she said, is data ethics training for agency staff.

Protecting people

The charter – which fits on a single page, and is designed to be simple and easily understood – explains that algorithms are a “fundamental element” of data analytics, which supports public services and delivers “new, innovative and well-targeted” policies aims.

The charter begins: “In a world where technology is moving rapidly, and artificial intelligence is on the rise, it’s essential that government has the right safeguards in place when it uses public data for decision-making. The government must ensure that data ethics are embedded in its work, and always keep in mind the people and communities being served by these tools.”

It says Stats NZ, the country’s official data agency, is “committed to transparent and accountable use of operational algorithms and other advanced data analytics techniques that inform decisions significantly impacting on individuals or groups”.

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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