Ph.D. research project

About the project

I am one of several Ph.D. candidates in the focus area ‘Governing the Digital Society‘ (Utrecht University). Starting September 2018, I will look into algorithmic accountability in Dutch municipalities, and work with municipal data professionals to create tools to convey the choices/values/norms/hierarchies and so forth embedded within these algorithms (see also the project summary below).

Approaching algorithmic account(-)ability: developing tools to foster formalized and practical transparency in municipal data projects

This research aims to tackles the question: What is the current view on algorithmic accountability within municipalities, (how) do they practice it, and how can this practice be improved? The first part of the investigation will thus sketch a general overview of algorithmic accountability. Aside from this general picture, the project will also look into a concrete case: SyRI, the algorithmic fraud detection system implemented by several municipalities to screen those who receive benefits, which were the topic of recent parliamentary discussion.

The second part of the project will establish a practical intervention in the field: a toolkit will be developed in close collaboration with municipal data professionals (e.g. data scientists, decisionmakers). This collaboration will reveal unique insights into professional perspectives and current practices regarding algorithmic accountability. Developing the toolkit provides ‘a seat at the table’, and ‘anthropologicalesque’ insight into the data professionals’ attitudes which will feed back into the former part of the research.

The aim of this toolkit is to help these professionals reflect on the algorithmic decision making process, to formally embed this reflection into municipal data projects, and to create a valid method to provide testimony to the working mechanisms of algorithms and the public values which inform them.