New Zealand launches government algorithm standards

By on 05/08/2020
The charter is one of a range of government initiatives that aim to improve transparency. (Photo courtesy russellstreet via flickr).

New Zealand has produced a set of standards designed to guide government use of algorithms and to improve data transparency and accountability, in what it claims is a world first.  

The Algorithm charter for Aotearoa New Zealand, which was launched last week, aims to give citizens confidence that data is being used safely, responsibly and effectively across government.

It outlines a number of measures including explaining how decisions are informed by algorithms; making sure data is fit for purpose by identifying and managing bias; ensuring that privacy, ethics, and human rights are safeguarded by regularly peer-reviewing algorithms; embedding a Māori perspective in the development and use of algorithms; clearly explaining the role of humans in decisions informed by algorithms; and providing a channel for citizens to appeal against decisions informed by algorithms.  

“We live in a data rich world where algorithms play a crucial role in helping us to make connections and identify relationships and patterns across vast quantities of information,” minister for statistics James Shaw said. “This helps to improve decision-making and leads to benefits such as the faster delivery of targeted public services.”  

However, he acknowledged that using algorithms to analyse data and inform decisions does not come without its risks. “It is important, therefore, that people have confidence that these algorithms are being used in a fair, ethical, and transparent way. And that’s what this charter is all about… this is a really important part of building public trust in government institutions.”

21 signatories

The charter has so far been signed by 21 agencies including the Ministry of Justice, the Department of Internal Affairs, the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development, and Inland Revenue.

The Accident Compensation Corporation – which was criticised in 2017 over its use of algorithms to detect fraud among those on its books – and the Department of Corrections, which has deployed algorithms to determine an inmate’s risk of reoffending, are also signatories.

In signing the charter, the agencies have committed to implementing the measures, though there is no enforcement mechanism behind it. 

The police service, which came under fire from privacy advocates in 2019 for introducing facial recognition technology without announcing it, and the country’s spy agencies are not among the signatories. A spokesman for Shaw’s office told The Guardian that no agency had ruled out the charter and that others are expected to sign later.

Greater consistency across government

The development of the charter followed a recommendation by then government chief data steward Liz MacPherson and chief digital officer Paul James, who said in a 2018 report that the safe and effective use of operational algorithms required greater consistency across government.

The charter draws on the Principles for the Safe and Effective Use of Data and Analytics co-designed by MacPherson and the privacy commissioner, John Edwards, and is one of a range of government initiatives that aim to improve transparency, including the establishment of the data ethics advisory group in July last year.

Colin Gavaghan, a law professor at the University of Otago who was involved in the 2019 review that suggested an independent regulator should oversee the use of algorithms by agencies, told The Guardian there is “plenty to like” in the new standards and said they could serve as a blueprint for other governments.

“As ever, the devil’s in the detail, and that means implementation,” he said. “We still feel like some kind of oversight and regulatory body that should have an all-of-government remit seems like a good idea.”  

The New Zealand government said the algorithm charter will continue to evolve and will be reviewed in 12 months to ensure it is achieving its intended purpose without stifling innovation or creating a compliance burden. 

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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