NZ proposes ‘ethical’ algorithm charter


New Zealand government agencies may soon be charter-bound to ensure their algorithms are “fair, ethical and transparent” in a proposal by the state’s official data agency, Stats NZ. 

Led by NZ’s government chief data steward, Liz MacPherson, the Charter establishes a basic “ethical” framework for government agencies when creating or using operational algorithms, committing agencies to a five-year timeline to improve transparency and accountability in their development of algorithms.

The proposed Charter comes in response to NZ’s Principles for the Safe and Effective Use of Data and Analytics released last year by the Privacy Commissioner, which stressed greater accountability by public agencies around how algorithms inform decisions that impact citizens’ lives.

The proposed 10-point charter presents specific actions, tools, and safeguards to ensure agencies increase transparency and ethical practice when developing algorithms.

Among the 10 draft provisions within the proposed Charter include a commitment by agencies to develop algorithms for the “public good”, explaining “how significant decisions are informed by algorithms”, a requirement to publish information about how data are collected and stored, and in expressly using tools and processes that ensure “privacy, ethics, and human rights considerations are integrated as a part of algorithm development and procurement”.

Stats NZ has launched a public consultation to gauge community responses to the charter.

In announcing the proposed charter, Minister for Statistics James Shaw stressed the need for government to affirm citizens’ confidence that “their data is being handled appropriately and that proper safeguards are being applied”.

“Many government agencies are already harnessing the power of data to deliver improved public services for New Zealanders — coming up with innovative solutions to complex problems,” Shaw said.

“For example, Work and Income’s Youth Service, NEET, uses an algorithm to identify at-risk school leavers and offer them support.

“Last year, our government commissioned a review of how agencies are using operational algorithms to deliver core services. The review found a need for agencies to be more transparent about how algorithms are informing decisions that affect people in significant ways.

“The proposed charter has been drafted in response to this finding, and will encourage ethical and open practices, as well as fostering greater consistency and collaboration across government agencies.”