The workshop was structured in two parts. The first part was aiming at gathering each participant’s definition of an algorithm, thus allowing to draw an outline of a shared definition of this term.
The definition given by each of the 8 participants was indicative of their area of expertise. The technical profiles suggested scientific definitions of an algorithm: a ‘calculation process’, a ‘series of logical and systematic operations’, a ‘composition of operating modes’, or a ‘series of instructions’. Other profiles, however, suggested definitions from a wider angle, mentioning their embodiment and implementation in our world. Hence the term ‘tool’ appeared, ‘not only technical’, but also ‘powerful’, in need for a ‘better regulation of its design and use’.
The sharing of each other’s definitions led to discussions and debates about the role of algorithms in public services, and shine a light on their benefits and inconveniences. Though the topic was not narrowed down to machine learning, the discussion quickly landed on this type of algorithm. By their capacity of quick and massive data analysis, algorithms are considered as the one and only viable way to enhance the legacy of data build by administrations and to allow their exploitation. Moreover, in all cases – even when algorithms take the form of mere Excel sheets – they are considered as a stopgap for the lack of human resources in the public sector, liberating precious time for the employees, therefore reassigned to other works with more added value.
As aware of these benefits as they were, the participants expressed critical thinking towards algorithms. They mentioned their ‘black box’ aura, and highlighted three points:
- A lack of transparency, coming from a lack of visibility on the processed data and the technical aspects of the algorithms, as well as on the interpretation of the legal measures and regulations in the computer code.
- As the public sector must be accounted for their decision process, if decisions are, as a whole or in part, made by algorithm, the incapacity of explaining them them puts the legitimacy of the deployment of this technology in jeopardy.
- The deployment of algorithms too often endorses existing processes, without questioning them, nor proposing an alternative. By their stiffness, algorithms inhibit adjustments from decisions made by the public.
Furthermore, the conversations revealed a fear of technological replacement, a sign of people’s apprehension for the algorithms to disparage the knowledge and expertise of many fields of work.