Computational Journalism and The Reporting of Algorithms

Note: A version of the following also appears on the Tow Center blog.

Software and algorithms have come to adjudicate an ever broader swath of our lives, including everything from search engine personalization and advertising systems, to teacher evaluation, banking and finance, political campaigns, and police surveillance.  But these algorithms can make mistakes. They have biases. Yet they sit in opaque black boxes, their inner workings, their inner “thoughts” hidden behind layers of complexity.

We need to get inside that black box, to understand how they may be exerting power on us, and to understand where they might be making unjust mistakes. Traditionally, investigative journalists have helped hold powerful actors in business or government accountable. But today, algorithms, driven by vast troves of data, have become the new power brokers in society. And the automated decisions of algorithms deserve every bit as much scrutiny as other powerful and influential actors.

Today the Tow Center publishes a new Tow/Knight Brief, “Algorithmic Accountability Reporting: On the Investigation of Black Boxes” to start tackling this issue. The Tow/Knight Brief presents motivating questions for why algorithms are worthy of our investigations, and develops a theory and method based on the idea of reverse engineering that can help parse how algorithms work. While reverse engineering shows promise as a method, it will also require the dedicated investigative talents of journalists interviewing algorithms’ creators as well. Algorithms are, after all, manifestations of human design.

If you’re in NYC next week, folks from the New York Times R&D lab are pushing the idea forward in their Impulse Response Workshop. And if you’re at IRE and NICAR’s 2014 CAR Conference in Baltimore on Feb 28th, I’ll be joined by Chase Davis, Frank Pasquale, and Jeremy Singer-Vine for an in-depth discussion on holding algorithms accountable. In the mean time, have a read of the paper, and let me know your thoughts, comments, and critiques.