UK public unaware and unconcerned by government use of algorithms

Government Data Algorithm Transparency

New research published by the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation (CDEI) suggests that the public remains largely unaware and unconcerned about the use of data algorithms in the public sector.

However, the report ‘Complete transparency, complete simplicity’, conducted by BritainThinks, suggests that once they’re made aware of the principles of algorithms in government data, the public wants their use to be transparent by default.

The report states: “Despite their lack of personal interest in the information, participants felt that in principle all categories of information about algorithmic decision-making should be made available to the public, both citizens and experts. For something to be meaningfully transparent, participants concluded, as much information as possible should be made accessible.

Complete Transparency in Government Data

“Awareness of two of the central elements of this topic – algorithms and broader transparency in the public sector – is very low. There is almost no awareness of the use of algorithms in the public sector, and no spontaneous understanding of why transparency would be important in this context.”

One of the rare instances of respondents being aware of the use of algorithms in the public sector was in the award of GCSE and A-level grades in August 2020 when Covid forced the cancellation of exams.

The research suggests that proactive measures are needed to communicate and educate around the use of data and algorithms in the public sector. It found that transparency itself was not sufficient to build awareness or interest. “More active communications (such as signs, letters, or local announcements) which notify the public about the use and purpose of algorithms would be more likely to have an impact and would signpost people to transparency information.”

The latest report followed CDEI research into bias in algorithmic decision-making published in November 2020, which recommended that the government should place a mandatory transparency obligation on all public sector organisations using algorithms, stipulating proactive publication of information about the algorithms.

We're exploring the use of data in the public sector in depth at The Government Data Show on 14-23 September 2021. Find out more below.

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