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Big Risks, Big Opportunities: the Intersection of Big Data and Civil Rights

Latest White House report on Big Data charts pathways for fairness and opportunity but also cautions against re-encoding bias and discrimination into algorithmic systems.

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As technology advances and our economic, social, and civic lives become increasingly digital, we are faced with ethical questions of great consequence. Big data and associated technologies create enormous new opportunities to revisit assumptions and instead make data-driven decisions. Properly harnessed, big data can be a tool for overcoming longstanding bias and rooting out discrimination.

The era of big data is also full of risk. The algorithmic systems that turn data into information are not infallible—they rely on the imperfect inputs, logic, probability, and people who design them. Predictors of success can become barriers to entry; careful marketing can be rooted in stereotype. Without deliberate care, these innovations can easily hardwire discrimination, reinforce bias, and mask opportunity.

Because technological innovation presents both great opportunity and great risk, the White House has released several reports on “big data” intended to prompt conversation and advance these important issues. The topics of previous reports on data analytics included privacy, prices in the marketplace, and consumer protection laws. Today, we are announcing the latest report on big data, one centered on algorithmic systems, opportunity, and civil rights.

The first big data report warned of “the potential of encoding discrimination in automated decisions”—that is, discrimination may “be the inadvertent outcome of the way big data technologies are structured and used.” A commitment to understanding these risks and harnessing technology for good prompted us to specifically examine the intersection between big data and civil rights.

Using case studies on credit lending, employment, higher education, and criminal justice, the report we are releasing today illustrates how big data techniques can be used to detect bias and prevent discrimination. It also demonstrates the risks involved, particularly how technologies can deliberately or inadvertently perpetuate, exacerbate, or mask discrimination.

The purpose of the report is not to offer remedies to the issues it raises, but rather to identify these issues and prompt conversation, research—and action—among technologists, academics, policy makers, and citizens, alike.

The report includes a number of recommendations for advancing work in this nascent field of data and ethics. These include investing in research, broadening and diversifying technical leadership, cross-training, and expanded literacy on data discrimination, bolstering accountability, and creating standards for use within both the government and the private sector. It also calls on computer and data science programs and professionals to promote fairness and opportunity as part of an overall commitment to the responsible and ethical use of data.

Big data is here to stay; the question is how it will be used: to advance civil rights and opportunity, or to undermine them. The White House is deeply committed to ensuring the Federal government is on the forefront of using technology to advance civil rights and opportunity. One example of this commitment is an ongoing effort to hire data scientists throughout the government who are working to use cutting edge technologies and techniques to ensure the government is accessible and user-friendly for all citizens. The Opportunity Project, which is putting data and digital tools in the hands of families, communities, and local leaders to help them navigate information about the resources they need to thrive, is an example of what is possible.

If harnessing technology for good interests you, then you are in the right place. The report we are releasing today is just a snapshot of the White House’s work to create opportunity through technology. Check out Computer Science for All, Image of STEM and TechHire to learn more. We also encourage you to follow along this spring and summer when we host a new series of public workshops on artificial intelligence and machine learning.