August 15, 2020

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New Zealand establishes algorithm charter for government agencies

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The New Zealand government has launched a set of standards designed to act as a guideline for government agencies on how to use algorithms.

The new Algorithm Charter is the first of its type. According to New Zealand’s Minister of Statistics, the charter will help to improve data transparency and accountability.

The Algorithm charter for Aotearoa New Zealand demonstrates a commitment to ensuring New Zealanders have confidence in how government agencies use algorithms. The charter is one of many ways that government demonstrates transparency and accountability in the use of data.

This is most notably observed when algorithms are being used to process and interpret large amounts of data.

Using algorithms for data analysation and decision making is a risky task. The charter will help determine whether the algorithms are being used in a fair, ethical, and transparent way.

So far, 21 agencies have signed the charter. This includes the Department of corrections, Ministry of Education and the ministry for the environment.

In it, departments pledge to be publicly transparent about how decision-making is driven by algorithms, including giving “plain English” explanations; to make available information about the processes used and how data is stored unless forbidden by law

By signing the charter these agencies have agreed to commit a range of measures such as explaining how decisions are informed by the algorithms; making sure data is fit for purpose by managing and identifying biases, ensuring that privacy, ethics and human rights are maintained.

The development of the charter was recommended by the New Zealand government chief data steward and chief digital officer who said that safe and effective use of operational algorithms required more attention and greater consistency across the New Zealand government.

The recommendation was presented after a call made to the New Zealand government about how the government agencies were using algorithms to analyse data.

There were claims that the New Zealand government agencies were potentially using citizen data collected through the country’s visa application process.

This was done to determine those who were breeching their visa conditions by filtering people based on their age, ethnicity, and gender.

A former New Zealand Immigration minister originally rejected the idea, stating that immigration looks at a range of issues such as those who have made and have had rejected multiple visa applications.

He said that it looks at people who place the greatest burden on the health system, people who place the greatest burden on the criminal justice system and uses that data to prioritise those people.

It is important that the integrity of New Zealand’s immigration system is protected and that that immigration resources are used as effectively as possible.

Departments committed to the charter included New Zealand’s accident compensation scheme – which was criticised in 2017 for using algorithms to detect fraud among those on its books – and the corrections agency, which has deployed algorithms to determine an inmate’s risk of reoffending. The immigration agency, found in March to be profiling applicants by algorithm, is also a signatory.

The New Zealand government added that the algorithm charter would evolve and will be reviewed next in 12 months to make sure that it has achieved its intended purpose without creating unnecessary burden or halting progress.

Agencies must also consider te ao Māori, or Indigenous, worldviews on data collection and consult with groups affected by their equations. In New Zealand, Māori are disproportionately represented in the justice and prison system.

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