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Socitm calls on local authorities to learn the lessons – and think long and hard before they use algorithms ….

This comes in the wake of the controversy over the exam grading algorithm and wider calls for more transparency on how such tools are used in public services. 

The society says that if you don’t fully understand what a program is doing, when working with your data in your political and social setting, then you are running a huge risk in using it. If it will affect decisions about people’s lives, you should think long and hard before using one. 

Socitm’s Vice president Mark Lumley, Director Digital & IT at London Borough of Hounslow, recommends three crucial steps when assessing algorithm use – local authorities must demonstrate this is a forensic exercise not a tick box one:  

  1. Is the proposed approach proportionate and ethical? This requires forensic questioning. 
  1. Planning rigorous testing in the operational setting with relevant data is critical. 
  1. Underpin questioning and testing with robust sets of checks and balances built into accountable governance, including political and executive scrutiny, due diligence, and appropriate standards. 

Socitm president, Sam Smith (Head of IT & digital for 3C ICT, Strategic IT lead for Cambridgeshire County and Peterborough City Councils, said: 

“There can be positive benefits from appropriate and well-structured use of algorithms and smart information systems. These benefits include streamlining services and enabling better outcomes for individuals and places. But there are also serious questions to be considered regarding transparency and public trust. GDPR gives people the right to challenge any decisions made by AI and be shown how the conclusion was reached.  This further emphasises that the application and impact of algorithms must be fully tested and understood before they are pressed into use.” 

Algorithm use is not just a technical issue of programming and data quality. It is also about how the program interacts with its development data, and then what happens when you apply it in a specific local social and political environment with different data. Socitm is concerned that the consequences will fall on local people, local officials, and politicians, and as we’ve seen these can be very serious.  

The difficult topics of algorithms, AI et al and their role and use within and by local authorities will be discussed in detail at Socitm’s next Share National conference on 24 and 25 September. The conference is for members and public service people only. It will be hosted and facilitated by Mark Lumley.  

For more details contact Communications Manager David Ogden: david.ogden@socitm.net 

About Share National 
Share National: Ethical use of emerging technologies and data 
24-25 September 2020 
Twice daily webinars at 10:30 – 12:00 and 14:00 – 15:30 covering digital ethics, security, emerging technologies and harnessing data 

About Mark Lumley 
Director Digital & IT at London Borough of Hounslow 
Mark was elected as Vice President, by members, to the Socitm President’s Team in June 2020. As part of his role with Socitm, he works with Martin Ferguson and William Barker to research and offer practical experience on the policy focus of ethical use of emerging technologies and data. 
Please get in touch if you’d like to speak to Mark.