Pitt Cyber Announces Task Force to Prevent Bias in Allegheny County’s Decision-Making Algorithms

Jan 22, 2020

Contact: Deborah M. Todd, University of Pittsburgh News
412-624-6687 (office); 412-519-5965 (cell); dmtodd@pitt.edu


Pitt Cyber Announces Task Force to Prevent Bias in Allegheny County’s Decision-Making Algorithms

The Pittsburgh Task Force on Public Algorithms will study predictive risk models, gather community input and recommend best practices for fairness

PITTSBURGH—In communities across the country, public decisions surrounding parole, health and human services, and hiring are no longer made solely by human beings, but are instead driven by algorithms. In Allegheny County, algorithms help to determine risk assessments for child welfare services and where to deploy police officers, and are expected to become more prevalent in decision making in the years ahead.

The algorithms are created to make swift and neutral decisions that are more informed and consistent than those of humans. However, if an algorithms’ code reflects the biases of its human creator, or it was built using data from biased practices, it can exacerbate the same problems it was designed to solve.

Today, the University of Pittsburgh Institute for Cyber Law, Policy, and Security announced the creation of the Pittsburgh Task Force on Public Algorithms. The task force, which was convened with support from The Heinz Endowments, is a coalition from Pitt and beyond of researchers, educators, advocates, and public and private sector stakeholders that seeks to establish best practices and practical guidelines for the use of municipal algorithms.

The task force’s work will be assisted by an advisory panel featuring representatives from Allegheny County and the City of Pittsburgh and supported by Common Cause Consultants and Weiss Burkhardt Kramer, LLC.

“Increasingly, algorithms are being used to facilitate efficient government. We need to ensure that historical discrimination and existing inequities are not reinforced,” said Pitt Cyber Founding Director and Task Force Chair David Hickton. “Pittsburgh should lead the way in effective and fair oversight of these systems. We can be a national model, ensuring algorithmic accountability and equity for all residents.”

Heinz  Endowments Chief Equity Officer Carmen Anderson said the region’s growth as a hub for technology and research must be accompanied by efforts to examine the potential impacts of technologies powered by big data.

“As Pittsburgh develops into one of the world’s leading centers of research and deployment of artificial intelligence, machine learning, and other emerging technologies, it is imperative that we simultaneously develop a set of ethics, policies, and procedures informed by people who will be impacted by these technologies,” she said. “It’s particularly crucial as algorithms are used by complex systems with histories of racism and bias such as the criminal justice system. The Heinz Endowments is proud to support the work of the task force to begin this important process.”

Community Input: Meetings in March

The task force will seek area residents’ thoughts on the use of municipal algorithms via public meetings to be held March 10th and 19th  and through online submissions. Details can be found at https://www.cyber.pitt.edu/algorithms where residents can also submit comments. A full report of the task force’s research and recommendations, informed by the community outreach, will be published in the summer of 2021.

Identifying and eliminating biases in algorithms today is a critical step towards an equitable future for the county, said task force member and Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh President Esther Bush.

“Particularly as governments expand the use of these powerful tools, with so much at stake for our liberty, the fight for algorithmic fairness and accountability is another frontier in the struggle for civil rights,” said Bush.

“It is critical for the task force to hear from residents whose lives are being impacted by decision-making algorithms. That feedback will help us to draft recommendations for oversight that directly address issues that have been deemed priorities and informed by the community,” said LaTrenda Sherrill of Common Cause Consultants, a task force member.

The Heinz Endowments is devoted to the mission of helping the region prosper as a vibrant center of creativity, learning and social, economic and environmental sustainability. Core to their work is the vision of a just community where all are included and where everyone who calls southwestern Pennsylvania home has a real and meaningful opportunity to thrive.

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