Competing With Data & Analytics
The growing importance of algorithms to business and society is a little-discussed feature of our increasingly digital world. These algorithms are the underpinnings of NSA surveillance, online search engines, corporate security, modern matchmaking and many other activities in both the private and public sector. These algorithms can be a source of competitive advantage (think Google), play an operational role or drive marketing. Just what are algorithms, how are they used, and what happens when influential algorithms go wrong?
Wikipedia and Merriam-Webster define an algorithm as a step-by-step procedure for calculations, data processing and automated reasoning, expressed as a finite list of instructions that result in an outcome.
In a recent paper, Governing Algorithms: A Provocation Piece, three New York University researchers — Solon Barocas, Sophie Hood and Malte Ziewitz — explore how algorithms are influencing research, policy and practice by raising more than three dozen thought-provoking questions, including:
- How do algorithms change existing networks of accountability? By portraying [algorithms] as autonomous decision-makers, their operators can defer accountability. Where should accountability lie when an algorithm goes awry, and how could this accountability be engineered?
- Should algorithms be subject to more or less scrutiny in different contexts, such as high-frequency trading, predictive policing, retail marketing, political campaigns, and medical diagnosis?
The issue of algorithm-related accountability is less esoteric than you might think. In a 2012 Limn article, Cornell University researcher Tarleton Gillespie explores the controversy over Twitter Trends and the “algorithmic ‘censorship’ of #occupywallstreet.”
As Gillespie explains, Twitter Trends is a simple list of 10 terms provided by Twitter on its homepage. The algorithm behind Trends digests the 250 million tweets every day and indexes the most vigorously discussed terms, either globally or for a user’s chosen country or city.
The issue with Occupy Wall Street, according to Gillespie, was that “even as the protests were gaining strength and media coverage, and talk of the movement on Twitter was surging, the term was not ‘Trending.’ Even in cities where protests were occurring and tweets spiked, the term didn’t trend.” This omission led some to suggest that Twitter was deliberately dropping the term from its Trending list.