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Tuesday, March 8, 2022

MFIA Releases Algorithmic Accountability Packet for Local Journalists

As part of its continuing efforts to promote algorithmic accountability, the Media Freedom and Information Access (MFIA) clinic at Yale Law School is publishing an information packet to help local journalists report on the use of algorithms by police departments. The packet is being released in the run up to Sunshine Week, a national initiative taking place March 13–19, to engage public discussion on the importance of open government.

The packet builds on a study of Connecticut state agencies’ use of algorithms conducted earlier this year by the clinic in collaboration with the Connecticut Foundation for Open Government and the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information. Based on Freedom of Information (FOI) requests filed with three agencies, the study showed that many algorithms are not performing as intended or are having unanticipated disparate impacts across racial or socioeconomic lines.

Read “Algorithms in Policing: An Investigative Packet”

“There’s a lot of potential for algorithms to make our government more efficient, more fair, and more pleasant for everyone involved,” said Paul Meosky ’23, who worked on the packet. “To release that potential, however, we need to include the community in the decisions about what data goes into these algorithms and how it will be used. Human oversight, model transparency, and constant reevaluation can all help algorithms counter rather than enforce our mistakes.”

Policing algorithms, in particular, have often been adopted in secret and without oversight, according to the clinic. Though they are intended to help prevent or solve crime, algorithms have been known to exacerbate discriminatory or disparate policing practices, causing harm to communities.

In the absence of robust public oversight of police algorithms, news coverage can help ensure transparency and accountability, according to the packet’s authors. But reporting on algorithms can have a steep learning curve. MFIA’s information packet is intended to fill this gap and empower local journalists.

Prepared by Meosky and Sruthi Venkatachalam ’23, the packet includes a primer on policing algorithms, a model FOI request to a local police department, and a list of sample questions for journalists to ask police departments or government officials.

“A large part of the problem is that the public is not aware of even whether an algorithm is being used. In order to hold law enforcement and policy makers accountable, we need to understand if an algorithm is being used, and if so, how,” said Venkatachalam. “Asking the right questions and using state Freedom of Information laws are important ways to get the information needed to evaluate these programs.”

The Media Freedom and Information Access clinic is dedicated to increasing government transparency, defending the essential work of news gatherers, and protecting freedom of expression through impact litigation, direct legal services, and policy work.