Computers Can Solve Your Problem. You May Not Like The Answer

David Scharfenberg at the Boston Globe: “Years of research have shown that teenagers need their sleep. Yet high schools often start very early in the morning. Starting them later in Boston would require tinkering with elementary and middle school schedules, too — a Gordian knot of logistics, pulled tight by the weight of inertia, that proved impossible to untangle.

Until the computers came along.

Last year, the Boston Public Schools asked MIT graduate students Sébastien Martin and Arthur Delarue to build an algorithm that could do the enormously complicated work of changing start times at dozens of schools — and rerouting the hundreds of buses that serve them….

The algorithm was poised to put Boston on the leading edge of a digital transformation of government. In New York, officials were using a regression analysis tool to focus fire inspections on the most vulnerable buildings. And in Allegheny County, Pa., computers were churning through thousands of health, welfare, and criminal justice records to help identify children at risk of abuse….

While elected officials tend to legislate by anecdote and oversimplify the choices that voters face, algorithms can chew through huge amounts of complicated information. The hope is that they’ll offer solutions we’ve never imagined ­— much as Google Maps, when you’re stuck in traffic, puts you on an alternate route, down streets you’ve never traveled.

Dataphiles say algorithms may even allow us to filter out the human biases that run through our criminal justice, social service, and education systems. And the MIT algorithm offered a small window into that possibility. The data showed that schools in whiter, better-off sections of Boston were more likely to have the school start times that parents prize most — between 8 and 9 a.m. The mere act of redistributing start times, if aimed at solving the sleep deprivation problem and saving money, could bring some racial equity to the system, too.

Or, the whole thing could turn into a political disaster.

District officials expected some pushback when they released the new school schedule on a Thursday night in December, with plans to implement in the fall of 2018. After all, they’d be messing with the schedules of families all over the city.

But no one anticipated the crush of opposition that followed. Angry parents signed an online petition and filled the school committee chamber, turning the plan into one of the biggest crises of Mayor Marty Walsh’s tenure. The city summarily dropped it. The failure would eventually play a role in the superintendent’s resignation.

It was a sobering moment for a public sector increasingly turning to computer scientists for help in solving nagging policy problems. What had gone wrong? Was it a problem with the machine? Or was it a problem with the people — both the bureaucrats charged with introducing the algorithm to the public, and the public itself?…(More)”