How the Pandemic Made Algorithms Go Haywire


Article by Ravi Parikh and Amol Navathe: “Algorithms have always had some trouble getting things right—hence the fact that ads often follow you around the internet for something you’ve already purchased.

But since COVID upended our lives, more of these algorithms have misfired, harming millions of Americans and widening existing financial and health disparities facing marginalized groups. At times, this was because we humans weren’t using the algorithms correctly. More often it was because COVID changed life in a way that made the algorithms malfunction.

Take, for instance, an algorithm used by dozens of hospitals in the U.S. to identify patients with sepsis—a life-threatening consequence of infection. It was supposed to help doctors speed up transfer to the intensive care unit. But starting in spring of 2020, the patients that showed up to the hospital suddenly changed due to COVID. Many of the variables that went into the algorithm—oxygen levels, age, comorbid conditions—were completely different during the pandemic. So the algorithm couldn’t effectively discern sicker from healthier patients, and consequently it flagged more than twice as many patients as “sick” even though hospital capacity was 35 percent lower than normal. The result was presumably more instances of doctors and nurses being summoned to the patient bedside. It’s possible all of these alerts were necessary – after all, more patients were sick. However, it’s also possible that many of these alerts were false alarms because the type of patients showing up to the hospital were different. Either way, this threatened to overwhelm physicians and hospitals. This “alert overload” was discovered months into the pandemic and led the University of Michigan health system to shut down its use of the algorithm…(More)”.

More than just information: what does the public want to know about climate change?


Paper by Michael Murunga et all: “Public engagement on climate change is a vital concern for both science and society. Despite more people engaging with climate change science today, there remains a high-level contestation in the public sphere regarding scientific credibility and identifying information needs, interests, and concerns of the non-technical public. In this paper, we present our response to these challenges by describing the use of a novel “public-powered” approach to engaging the public through submitting questions of interest about climate change to climate researchers before a planned engagement activity. Employing thematic content analysis on the submitted questions, we describe how those people we engaged with are curious about understanding climate change science, including mitigating related risks and threats by adopting specific actions. We assert that by inviting the public to submit their questions of interest to researchers before an engagement activity, this step can inform why and transform how actors engage in reflexive dialogue…(More)”.

Building a Data Infrastructure for the Bioeconomy


Article by Gopal P. Sarma and Melissa Haendel: “While the development of vaccines for COVID-19 has been widely lauded, other successful components of the national response to the pandemic have not received as much attention. The National COVID Cohort Collaborative (N3C), for example, flew under the public’s radar, even though it aggregated crucial US public health data about the new disease through cross-institutional collaborations among government, private, and nonprofit health and research organizations. These data, which were made available to researchers via cutting-edge software tools, have helped in myriad ways: they led to identification of the clinical characteristics of acute COVID-19 for risk prediction, assisted in providing clinical care for immunocompromised adults, revealed how COVID infection affects children, and documented that vaccines appear to reduce the risk of developing long COVID.

N3C has created the largest national, publicly available patient-level dataset in US history. Through a unique public-private partnership, over 300 participating organizations quickly overcame privacy concerns and data silos to include 13 million patient records in the project. More than 3,000 participating scientists are now working to overcome the particular challenge faced in the United States—the lack of a national healthcare data infrastructure available in many other countries—to support public health and medical responses. N3C shows great promise for unraveling answers to questions related to COVID, but it could easily be expanded for many areas of public health, including pandemic preparedness and monitoring disease status across the population.

As public servants dedicated to improving public health and equity, we believe that to unite the nation’s fragmented public health system, the United States should establish a standing capacity to collect, harmonize, and sustain a wide range of data types and sources. The public health data collected by N3C would ultimately be but one component of a rich landscape of interoperable data systems that can guide public policy in an era of rapid environmental change, sophisticated biological threats, and an economy enabled by biotechnology. Such an effort will require new thinking about data collection, infrastructure, and regulation, but its benefits could be enormous—enabling policymakers to make decisions in an increasingly complex world. And as the interconnections between society, industry, and government continue to intensify, decisionmaking of all types and scales will be more efficient and responsive if it can rely on significantly expanded data collection and analysis capabilities…(More)”.

Wicked Problems in Public Policy: Understanding and Responding to Complex Challenges


Book by Brian W. Head: “…offers the first overview of the ‘wicked problems’ literature, often seen as complex, open-ended, and intractable, with both the nature of the ‘problem’ and the preferred ‘solution’ being strongly contested. It contextualises the debate using a wide range of relevant policy examples, explaining why these issues attract so much attention.
There is an increasing interest in the conceptual and practical aspects of how ‘wicked problems’ are identified, understood and managed by policy practitioners. The standard public management responses to complexity and uncertainty (including traditional regulation and market-based solutions) are insufficient. Leaders often advocate and implement ideological ‘quick fixes’, but integrative and inclusive responses are increasingly being utilised to recognise the multiple interests and complex causes of these problems. This book uses examples from a wide range of social, economic and environmental fields in order to develop new insights about better solutions, and thus gain broad stakeholder acceptance for shared strategies for tackling ‘wicked problems’…(More)”.

Shaping the Future of Small and Medium-Sized Cities: A Framework for Digital Transformation


Report by the World Economic Forum: “Digital transformation is becoming a crucial support mechanism for countries as they respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and undergo economic rebuilding and sustained development. For small and medium-sized cities (SMCs), digital transformation can disrupt traditional business models, breakthrough geographical and spatial boundaries, and create new ways to live in the digital era. However, the digital transformation of SMCs presents challenges such as insufficient digital talent, funds, and resources, poor understanding and application of digital technologies, and a lack of intercity interaction and cooperation mechanisms. This report analyses the challenges, needs, and concerns of SMCs undergoing digital transformation in China, Japan, Brazil, and Singapore, proposes a methodological reference model, and suggests actions for various urban stakeholders…(More)”.

(When) Do Open Budgets Transform Lives? Progress and Next Steps in Fiscal Openness Research


Paper by Xiao Hui Tai, Shikhar Mehra & Joshua E. Blumenstock: “This paper documents the rapidly growing empirical literature that can plausibly claim to identify causal effects of transparency or participation in budgeting in a variety of contexts. Recent studies convincingly demonstrate that the power of audits travels well beyond the context of initial field-defining studies, consider participatory budgeting beyond Brazil, where such practices were pioneered, and examine previously neglected outcomes, notably revenues and procurement. Overall, the study of the impacts of fiscal openness has become richer and more nuanced. The most well-documented causal effects are positive: lower corruption and enhanced accountability at the ballot box. Moreover, these impacts have been shown to apply across different settings. This research concludes that the empirical case for open government in this policy area is rapidly growing in strength. This paper sets out challenges related to studying national-level reforms; working directly with governments; evaluating systems as opposed to programs; clarifying the relationship between transparency and participation; and understanding trade-offs for reforms in this area….(More)”.

Canada is the first country to provide census data on transgender and non-binary people


StatsCan: “Prior to the 2021 Census, some individuals indicated that they were not able to see themselves in the two responses of male or female on the existing sex question in the census.

Following extensive consultation and countrywide engagement with the Canadian population, the census evolved—as it has for more than a century—to reflect societal changes, adding new content on gender in 2021.

Beginning in 2021, the precision of “at birth” was added to the sex question on the census questionnaire, and a new question on gender was included. As a result, the historical continuity of information on sex was maintained while allowing all cisgender, transgender and non-binary individuals to report their gender. This addressed an important information gap on gender diversity (see Filling the gaps: Information on gender in the 2021 Census and 2021 Census: Sex at birth and gender—the whole picture).

For many people, their gender corresponds to their sex at birth (cisgender men and cisgender women). For some, these do not align (transgender men and transgender women) or their gender is not exclusively “man” or “woman” (non-binary people).

The strength of the census is to provide reliable data for local communities throughout the country and for smaller populations such as the transgender and non-binary populations. Statistics Canada always protects privacy and confidentiality of respondents when disseminating detailed data.

These modifications reflect today’s reality in terms of the evolving acceptance and understanding of gender and sexual diversity and an emerging social and legislative recognition of transgender, non-binary and LGBTQ2+ people in general, that is, people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, Two-Spirit, or who use other terms related to gender or sexual diversity. In 2017, the Canadian government amended the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Canadian Criminal Code to protect individuals from discrimination and hate crimes based on gender identity and expression.

These data can be used by public decision makers, employers, and providers of health care, education, justice, and other services to better meet the needs of all men and women—including transgender men and women—and non-binary people in their communities….(More)”.

Why Democracy vs. Autocracy Misses the Point


Essay by Jean-Marie Guéhenno: “I have always been a contrarian. I was a contrarian in 1989 when I wrote my first book, criticizing the idea—then widely held—that democracy had triumphed once and for all. And today I find that I’m a contrarian again with my new book, because everybody is talking about the confrontation between democracies and autocracies and I think that’s missing the point.

Something much more important is happening: the revolution of data, the Internet, and artificial intelligence. I believe we are on the cusp of an earthquake in the history of humanity of a kind that happens only once in hundreds of years. The most recent comparison is the Renaissance, and the pace of change today is much quicker than back then.

The institutions we built in the pre-data age are soon going to be completely overwhelmed, and thinking in terms of the old categories of democracies versus autocracies misses all the new challenges that they will have to face. This is a time of great peril as well as great promise, as was the Renaissance—not only the era of Leonard da Vinci, but also a century of religious wars.

The current revolution of data and algorithms is redistributing power in a way that cannot be compared to any historical shift. Traditionally we think of power concentrating in the hands of the leaders of states or big industrial companies. But power, increasingly, is in the hands of algorithms that are tasked (initially by humans) with learning and changing themselves, and evolve in ways we do not predict.

That means the owners of Google or Facebook or Amazon are not the masters of our destiny in the same sense as previous corporate titans. Similarly, while it is true to some extent that data will give dictators unprecedented power to manipulate society, they may also come to be dominated by the evolution of the algorithms on which they depend.

We see already how algorithms are reshaping politics. Social media has created self-contained tribes which do not speak to each other. The most important thing in democracy is not the vote itself, but the process of deliberation before the vote, and social media is quickly fragmenting the common ground on which such deliberations have been built.

How can societies exert control over how algorithms manage data, and whether they foster hatred or harmony? Institutions that are able to control this new power are not yet really in place. What they should look like will be one of the great debates of the future.

I don’t have the answers: I believe no human mind can anticipate the extent of the transformations that are going to happen. Indeed, I think the very notion that you can know today what will be the right institutions for the future is hubristic. The best institutions (and people) will be those that are most adaptable.

However, I believe that one promising approach is to think in terms of the relationship between the logic of knowledge and the logic of democracy. Take central banks as an example. The average citizen does not have a clue about how monetary policy works. Instead we rely on politicians to task the experts at central banks to try achieve a certain goal—it could be full employment, or a stable currency….(More)”.

The Power of Platforms: Shaping Media and Society


Book by Rasmus Kleis Nielsen and Sarah Anne Ganter: “More people today get news via Facebook and Google than from any news organization in history, and smaller platforms like Twitter serve news to more users than all but the biggest media companies. In The Power of Platforms, Rasmus Kleis Nielsen and Sarah Anne Ganter draw on original interviews and other qualitative evidence to analyze the “platform power” that a few technology companies have come to exercise in public life, the reservations publishers have about platforms, as well as the reasons why publishers often embrace them nonetheless.

Nielsen and Ganter trace how relations between publishers and platforms have evolved across the United States, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. They identify the new, distinct relational and generative forms of power that platforms exercise as people increasingly rely on them to find and access news. Most of the news content we rely on is still produced by journalists working for news organizations, but Nielsen and Ganter chronicle rapid change in the ways in which we discover news, how it is distributed, where decisions are made on what to display (and what not), and in who profits from these flows of information. By examining the different ways publishers have responded to these changes and how various platform companies have in turn handled the increasingly important and controversial role they play in society, The Power of Platforms draws out the implications of a fundamental feature of the contemporary world that we all need to understand: previously powerful and relatively independent institutions like the news media are increasingly in a position similar to that of ordinary individual users, simultaneously empowered by and dependent upon a small number of centrally placed and powerful platforms…(More)”.

Can behavioral interventions be too salient? Evidence from traffic safety messages



Article by Jonathan D. Hall and Joshua M. Madsen: “Policy-makers are increasingly turning to behavioral interventions such as nudges and informational campaigns to address a variety of issues. Guidebooks say that these interventions should “seize people’s attention” at a time when they can take the desired action, but little consideration has been given to the costs of seizing one’s attention and to the possibility that these interventions may crowd out other, more important, considerations. We estimated these costs in the context of a widespread, seemingly innocuous behavioral campaign with the stated objective of reducing traffic crashes. This campaign displays the year-to-date number of statewide roadside fatalities (fatality messages) on previously installed highway dynamic message signs (DMSs) and has been implemented in 28 US states.

We estimated the impact of displaying fatality messages using data from Texas. Texas provides an ideal setting because the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) decided to show fatality messages starting in August 2012 for 1 week each month: the week before TxDOT’s monthly board meeting (campaign weeks). This allows us to measure the impact of the intervention, holding fixed the road segment, year, month, day of week, and time of day. We used data on 880 DMSs and all crashes occurring in Texas between 1 January 2010 and 31 December 2017 to investigate the effects of this safety campaign. We estimated how the intervention affects crashes near DMSs as well as statewide. As placebo tests, we estimated whether the chosen weeks inherently differ using data from before TxDOT started displaying fatality messages and data from upstream of DMSs.

Contrary to policy-makers’ expectations, we found that displaying fatality messages increases the number of traffic crashes. Campaign weeks realize a 1.52% increase in crashes within 5 km of DMSs, slightly diminishing to a 1.35% increase over the 10 km after DMSs. We used instrumental variables to recover the effect of displaying a fatality message and document a significant 4.5% increase in the number of crashes over 10 km. The effect of displaying fatality messages is comparable to raising the speed limit by 3 to 5 miles per hour or reducing the number of highway troopers by 6 to 14%. We also found that the total number of statewide on-highway crashes is higher during campaign weeks. The social costs of these fatality messages are large: Back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest that this campaign causes an additional 2600 crashes and 16 fatalities per year in Texas alone, with a social cost of $377 million per year…(More)”.