It’s not big data that discriminates – it’s the people that use it

 in the Conversation: “Data can’t be racist or sexist, but the way it is used can help reinforce discrimination. The internet means more data is collected about us than ever before and it is used to make automatic decisions that can hugely affect our lives, from our credit scores to our employment opportunities.

If that data reflects unfair social biases against sensitive attributes, such as our race or gender, the conclusions drawn from that data might also be based on those biases.

But this era of “big data” doesn’t need to to entrench inequality in this way. If we build smarter algorithms to analyse our information and ensure we’re aware of how discrimination and injustice may be at work, we can actually use big data to counter our human prejudices.

This kind of problem can arise when computer models are used to make predictions in areas such as insurance, financial loans and policing. If members of a certain racial group have historically been more likely to default on their loans, or been more likely to be convicted of a crime, then the model can deem these people more risky. That doesn’t necessarily mean that these people actually engage in more criminal behaviour or are worse at managing their money. They may just be disproportionately targeted by police and sub-prime mortgage salesmen.

Excluding sensitive attributes

Data scientist Cathy O’Neil has written about her experience of developing models for homeless services in New York City. The models were used to predict how long homeless clients would be in the system and to match them with appropriate services. She argues that including race in the analysis would have been unethical.

If the data showed white clients were more likely to find a job than black ones, the argument goes, then staff might focus their limited resources on those white clients that would more likely have a positive outcome. While sociological research has unveiled the ways that racial disparities in homelessness and unemployment are the result of unjust discrimination, algorithms can’t tell the difference between just and unjust patterns. And so datasets should exclude characteristics that may be used to reinforce the bias, such as race.

But this simple response isn’t necessarily the answer. For one thing, machine learning algorithms can often infer sensitive attributes from a combination of other, non-sensitive facts. People of a particular race may be more likely to live in a certain area, for example. So excluding those attributes may not be enough to remove the bias….

An enlightened service provider might, upon seeing the results of the analysis, investigate whether and how racism is a barrier to their black clients getting hired. Equipped with this knowledge they could begin to do something about it. For instance, they could ensure that local employers’ hiring practices are fair and provide additional help to those applicants more likely to face discrimination. The moral responsibility lies with those responsible for interpreting and acting on the model, not the model itself.

So the argument that sensitive attributes should be stripped from the datasets we use to train predictive models is too simple. Of course, collecting sensitive data should be carefully regulated because it can easily be misused. But misuse is not inevitable, and in some cases, collecting sensitive attributes could prove absolutely essential in uncovering, predicting, and correcting unjust discrimination. For example, in the case of homeless services discussed above, the city would need to collect data on ethnicity in order to discover potential biases in employment practices….(More)