Access to Algorithms


Paper by Hannah Bloch-Wehba: “Federal, state, and local governments increasingly depend on automated systems — often procured from the private sector — to make key decisions about civil rights and civil liberties. When individuals affected by these decisions seek access to information about the algorithmic methodologies that produced them, governments frequently assert that this information is proprietary and cannot be disclosed. 

Recognizing that opaque algorithmic governance poses a threat to civil rights and liberties, scholars have called for a renewed focus on transparency and accountability for automated decision making. But scholars have neglected a critical avenue for promoting public accountability and transparency for automated decision making: the law of access to government records and proceedings. This Article fills this gap in the literature, recognizing that the Freedom of Information Act, its state equivalents, and the First Amendment provide unappreciated legal support for algorithmic transparency.

The law of access performs three critical functions in promoting algorithmic accountability and transparency. First, by enabling any individual to challenge algorithmic opacity in government records and proceedings, the law of access can relieve some of the burden otherwise borne by parties who are often poor and under-resourced. Second, access law calls into question government’s procurement of algorithmic decision making technologies from private vendors, subject to contracts that include sweeping protections for trade secrets and intellectual property rights. Finally, the law of access can promote an urgently needed public debate on algorithmic governance in the public sector….(More)”.

New Data-Driven Map Shows Spread of Participation in Democracy


Loren Peabody at the Participatory Budgeting Project: “As we celebrate the first 30 years of participatory budgeting (PB) in the world and the first 10 years of the Participatory Budgeting Project (PBP), we reflect on how far and wide PB has spread–and how it continues to grow! We’re thrilled to introduce a new tool to help us look back as we plan for the next 30+ years of PB. And so we’re introducing a map of PB across the U.S. and Canada. Each dot on the map represents a place where democracy has been deepened by bringing people together to decide together how to invest public resources in their community….

This data sheds light on larger questions, such as what is the relationship between the size of PB budgets and the number of people who participate? Looking at PBP data on processes in counties, cities, and urban districts, we find a positive correlation between the size of the PB budget per person and the number of people who take part in a PB vote (r=.22, n=245). In other words, where officials make a stronger commitment to funding PB, more people take part in the process–all the more reason to continue growing PB!….(More)”.

Filling a gap: the clandestine gang fixing Rome illegally


Giorgio Ghiglione in The Guardian: “It is 6am on a Sunday and the streets of the Ostiense neighbourhood in southern Rome are empty. The metro has just opened and nearby cafes still await their first customers.

Seven men and women are working hard, their faces obscured by scarves and hoodies as they unload bags of cement and sand from a car near the Basilica of St Paul Outside the Walls.

They are not criminals. Members of the secret Gap organisation, they hide their identities because what they are doing – fixing a broken pavement without official permission – is technically illegal.

City maintenance – or the lack of it – has long been a hot-button issue in Italy’s capital. There are an estimated 10,000 potholesin the city – a source of frustration for the many Romans who travel by scooter. Garbage collection has also become a major problem since the city’s landfill was closed in 2013, with periodic “waste crises” where trash piles up in the streets. Cases of exploding buses and the collapse of a metro escalatormade international headlines.

The seven clandestine pavement-fixers are part of a network of about 20 activists quietly doing the work that the city authorities have failed to do. Gap stands for Gruppi Artigiani Pronto Intervento, (“groups of artisan emergency services”) but is also a tribute to the partisans of Gruppi di Azione Patriottica, who fought the fascists during the second world war.

“We chose this name because many of our parents or grandparents were partisans and we liked the idea of honouring their memory,” says one of the activists, a fiftysomething architect who goes by the pseudonym Renato. While the modern-day Gap aren’t risking their lives, their modus operandi is inspired by resistance saboteurs: they identify a target, strike and disappear unseen into the city streets.

Gap have been busy over the past few months. In December they repaired the fountain, built in the 1940s, of the Principe di Piemonte primary school. In January they painted a pedestrian crossing on a dangerous major road. Their latest work, the pavement fixing in Ostiense, involved filling a deep hole that regularly filled with water when it rained….(More)”.

The Smart Enough City


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Open Access Book by Ben Green: “Smart cities, where technology is used to solve every problem, are hailed as futuristic urban utopias. We are promised that apps, algorithms, and artificial intelligence will relieve congestion, restore democracy, prevent crime, and improve public services. In The Smart Enough City, Ben Green warns against seeing the city only through the lens of technology; taking an exclusively technical view of urban life will lead to cities that appear smart but under the surface are rife with injustice and inequality. He proposes instead that cities strive to be “smart enough”: to embrace technology as a powerful tool when used in conjunction with other forms of social change—but not to value technology as an end in itself….(More)”.

Artists as ‘Creative Problem-Solvers’ at City Agencies


Sophie Haigney at The New York Times: “Taja Lindley, a Brooklyn-based interdisciplinary artist and activist, will spend the next year doing an unconventional residency — she’ll be collaborating with the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, working on a project that deals with unequal birth outcomes and maternal mortality for pregnant and parenting black people in the Bronx.

Ms. Lindley is one of four artists who were selected this year for the City’s Public Artists in Residence program, or PAIR, which is managed by New York City’s Department of Cultural Affairs. The program, which began in 2015, matches artists and public agencies, and the artists are tasked with developing creative projects around social issues.

Ms. Lindley will be working with the Tremont Neighborhood Health Action Center, part of the department of health, in the Bronx. “People who are black are met with skepticism, minimized and dismissed when they seek health care,” Ms. Lindley said, “and the voices of black people can really shift medical practices and city practices, so I’ll really be centering those voices.” She said that performance, film and storytelling are likely to be incorporated in her project.

The other three artists selected this year are the artist Laura Nova, who will be in residence with the Department for the Aging; the artist Julia Weist, who will be in residence with the Department of Records and Information Services; and the artist Janet Zweig, who will be in residence with the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability. Each will receive $40,000. There is a three-month-long research phase and then the artists will spend a minimum of nine months creating and producing their work….(More)”.

Crowdsourcing a Constitution


Case Study by Cities of Service: “Mexico City was faced with a massive task: drafting a constitution. Mayor Miguel Ángel Mancera, who oversaw the drafting and adoption of the 212-page document, hoped to democratize the process. He appointed a drafting committee made up of city residents and turned to the Laboratório para la Ciudad (LabCDMX) to engage everyday citizens. LabCDMX conducted a comprehensive survey and employed the online platform Change.org to solicit ideas for the new constitution. Several petitioners without a legal or political background seized on the opportunity and made their voices heard with successful proposals on topics like green space, waterway recuperation, and LGBTI rights in a document that will have a lasting impact on Mexico City’s governance….(More)”.

New York City ‘Open Data’ Paves Way for Innovative Technology


Leo Gringut at the International Policy Digest: “The philosophy behind “Open Data for All” turns on the idea that easy access to government data offers everyday New Yorkers the chance to grow and innovate: “Data is more than just numbers – it’s information that can create new opportunities and level the playing field for New Yorkers. It’s the illumination that changes frameworks, the insight that turns impenetrable issues into solvable problems.” Fundamentally, the newfound accessibility of City data is revolutionizing NYC business. According to Albert Webber, Program Manager for Open Data, City of New York, a key part of his job is “to engage the civic technology community that we have, which is very strong, very powerful in New York City.”

Fundamentally, Open Data is a game-changer for hundreds of New York companies, from startups to corporate giants, all of whom rely on data for their operations. The effect is set to be particularly profound in New York City’s most important economic sector: real estate. Seeking to transform the real estate and construction market in the City, valued at a record-setting $1 trillion in 2016, companies have been racing to develop tools that will harness the power of Open Data to streamline bureaucracy and management processes.

One such technology is the Citiscape app. Developed by a passionate team of real estate experts with more than 15 years of experience in the field, the app assembles data from the Department of Building and the Environmental Control Board into one easy-to-navigate interface. According to Citiscape Chief Operational Officer Olga Khaykina, the secret is in the app’s simplicity, which puts every aspect of project management at the user’s fingertips. “We made DOB and ECB just one tap away,” said Khaykina. “You’re one tap away from instant and accurate updates and alerts from the DOB that will keep you informed about any changes to ongoing project. One tap away from organized and cloud-saved projects, including accessible and coordinated interaction with all team members through our in-app messenger. And one tap away from uncovering technical information about any building in NYC, just by entering its address.” Gone are the days of continuously refreshing the DOB website in hopes of an update on a minor complaint or a status change regarding your project; Citiscape does the busywork so you can focus on your project.

The Citiscape team emphasized that, without access to Open Data, this project would have been impossible….(More)”.

How the NYPD is using machine learning to spot crime patterns


Colin Wood at StateScoop: “Civilian analysts and officers within the New York City Police Department are using a unique computational tool to spot patterns in crime data that is closing cases.

A collection of machine-learning models, which the department calls Patternizr, was first deployed in December 2016, but the department only revealed the system last month when its developers published a research paper in the Informs Journal on Applied Analytics. Drawing on 10 years of historical data about burglary, robbery and grand larceny, the tool is the first of its kind to be used by law enforcement, the developers wrote.

The NYPD hired 100 civilian analysts in 2017 to use Patternizr. It’s also available to all officers through the department’s Domain Awareness System, a citywide network of sensors, databases, devices, software and other technical infrastructure. Researchers told StateScoop the tool has generated leads on several cases that traditionally would have stretched officers’ memories and traditional evidence-gathering abilities.

Connecting similar crimes into patterns is a crucial part of gathering evidence and eventually closing in on an arrest, said Evan Levine, the NYPD’s assistant commissioner of data analytics and one of Patternizr’s developers. Taken independently, each crime in a string of crimes may not yield enough evidence to identify a perpetrator, but the work of finding patterns is slow and each officer only has a limited amount of working knowledge surrounding an incident, he said.

“The goal here is to alleviate all that kind of busywork you might have to do to find hits on a pattern,” said Alex Chohlas-Wood, a Patternizr researcher and deputy director of the Computational Policy Lab at Stanford University.

The knowledge of individual officers is limited in scope by dint of the NYPD’s organizational structure. The department divides New York into 77 precincts, and a person who commits crimes across precincts, which often have arbitrary boundaries, is often more difficult to catch because individual beat officers are typically focused on a single neighborhood.

There’s also a lot of data to sift through. In 2016 alone, about 13,000 burglaries, 15,000 robberies and 44,000 grand larcenies were reported across the five boroughs.

Levine said that last month, police used Patternizr to spot a pattern of three knife-point robberies around a Bronx subway station. It would have taken police much longer to connect those crimes manually, Levine said.

The software works by an analyst feeding it “seed” case, which is then compared against a database of hundreds of thousands of crime records that Patternizr has already processed. The tool generates a “similarity score” and returns a rank-ordered list and a map. Analysts can read a few details of each complaint before examining the seed complaint and similar complaints in a detailed side-by-side view or filtering results….(More)”.

Catch Me Once, Catch Me 218 Times


Josh Kaplan at Slate: “…It was 2010, and the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department had recently rolled out a database called GraffitiTracker—software also used by police departments in Denver and Los Angeles County—and over the previous year, they had accumulated a massive set of images that included a couple hundred photos with his moniker. Painting over all Kyle’s handiwork, prosecutors claimed, had cost the county almost $100,000, and that sort of damage came with life-changing consequences. Ultimately, he made a plea deal: one year of incarceration, five years of probation, and more than $87,000 in restitution.

Criticism of police technology often gets mired in the complexities of the algorithms involved—the obscurity of machine learning, the feedback loops, the potentials for racial bias and error. But GraffitiTracker can tell us a lot about data-driven policing in part because the concept is so simple. Whenever a public works crew goes to clean up graffiti, before they paint over it, they take a photo and put it in the county database. Since taggers tend to paint the same moniker over and over, now whenever someone is caught for vandalism, police can search the database for their pseudonym and get evidence of all the graffiti they’ve ever done.

In San Diego County, this has radically changed the way that graffiti is prosecuted and has pumped up the punishment for taggers—many of whom are minors—to levels otherwise unthinkable. The results have been lucrative. In 2011, the first year San Diego started using GraffitiTracker countywide (a few San Diego jurisdictions already had it in place), the amount of restitution received for graffiti jumped from about $170,000 to almost $800,000. Roughly $300,000 of that came from juvenile cases. For the jurisdictions that weren’t already using GraffitiTracker, the jump was even more stark: The annual total went from $45,000 to nearly $400,000. In these cities, the average restitution ordered in adult cases went from $1,281 to $5,620, and at the same time, the number of cases resulting in restitution tripled. (San Diego has said it makes prosecuting vandalism easier.)

Almost a decade later, San Diego County and other jurisdictions are still using GraffitiTracker, yet it’s received very little media attention, despite the startling consequences for vandalism prosecution. But its implications extend far beyond tagging. GraffitiTracker presaged a deeper problem with law enforcement’s ability to use technology to connect people to crimes that, as Deputy District Attorney Melissa Ocampo put it to me, “they thought they got away with.”…(More)”.

The Referendum and Other Essays on Constitutional Politics


Book by Matt Qvortrup: “Until recently, referendums were little used. After the Scottish independence and Brexit referendums, they have come to the fore as a mechanism with the potential to disrupt the status quo and radically change political direction. This book looks at the historical development of the referendum, its use in different jurisdictions, and the types of constitutional questions it seeks to address. Written in an engaging style, the book offers a clear, objective overview of this important political and constitutional tool….(More)”.