_NEWS Informatics

_Ethics of Algorithms

Two Drexel researchers are examining how computer scientists’ personal values and cultural influences shape the content of algorithms.

_Kelly Joyce

Joyce is a professor of sociology in the College of Arts and Sciences and the founding director of Drexel’s Center for Science, Technology and Society.

_Kristene Unsworth

Unsworth is an assistant professor in the College of Computing and Informatics.

In today’s technology-driven world, algorithms are everywhere. By definition, they seem simple enough: Algorithms are formulas designed by humans to solve problems. But therein lies a problem. Very little is known about the experts and values that shape those equations.

The ethics involved in the production of algorithms is the focus of research by the College of Arts and Sciences’ Professor Kelly Joyce and Kristene Unsworth of the College of Computing & Informatics. Funded by a $300,000 National Science Foundation grant, Joyce and Unsworth are conducting in-depth interviews, gathering information based on their respective fields of expertise.

Joyce is observing computer scientists who search through big data in public health and medical records. Unsworth is examining the creation of algorithms that are used by security professionals in a variety of policing contexts. Both researchers are investigating which information is included and which information gets left out through the use of algorithms to visualize big data.

“Our work is very much concerned with the implications of our actions as researchers looking out at society,” says Unsworth. “Everything we do now leaves a huge data trail that has the potential to be mined by corporate interests, health care or the government. And we need to think about how we use it.”

Joyce and Unsworth’s team has started fieldwork at their first site, observing a group of computer scientists in action. They’re focusing on how they work with each other and their client to collectively create an algorithm that will make subsequent recommendations to consumers.

“[It’s difficult] to put borders around the broader issues of algorithm design. We’re talking about what ethics surround writing an equation or a sentence.”
—Kristene Unsworth, assistant professor in the College of
Computing & Informatics

“[It’s difficult] to put borders around the broader issues of algorithm design,” says Unsworth. “We’re talking about what ethics surround writing an equation or a sentence. And we’re predicting the potential of what that might mean.”

There is still a lot to be learned from the current research, and still even more from future observations and work sites.

“There’s a chance that nothing negative could come from this,” Unsworth says, “but there’s also a chance that we would uncover some sort of personal information or see trends that we don’t really have the ethical or professional guidelines for dealing with.”