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£1.1m study bids to find out why ‘Computer says No’

From the issuing of parking tickets to transplant waiting lists, algorithms and systems are increasingly responsible for the delivery of policy decisions, often with little opportunity for human beings to overturn or review outcomes.

Led by Cranfield University, the £1.1 million study will bring together academics from the University of East Anglia, Portsmouth University and Royal Holloway, University of London, to look at how system interactions can be redesigned to breed greater public confidence in the decision-making process.

The study will cover three areas of public policy where algorithms play a substantial role: refugee resettlement, the welfare system and healthcare provision. 

Dr Duncan Hodges, Lecturer at Cranfield University and Principal Investigator for the study, said: “If you have ever been on the end of the phone to a council, pleading your case that your parking ticket should be reversed for legitimate reasons, you will understand the influence algorithms have on public policy.

“While this example is a relatively low-key one, algorithms and systems are capable of having much more of an impact when they concern issues such as immigration, welfare and waiting lists.”

The researchj will investigate how enhanced communication of the logic behind the system can increase trust in digital service design.

Dr Hodges said: “We are increasingly interacting with services that have been designed digitally to make decisions on an organisation’s behalf.

“If as a society, we lose trust in those services and the systems behind them, there is the potential for a fundamental breakdown in the relationship between citizen and state.”

The three-year study is being funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, which is now part of the newly formed UK Research and Innovation. It will assess how systems can be redesigned with the aim of protecting individual security while enhancing confidence in digital service design. In 2017 EPSRC called on researchers to submit proposals for projects that would further the understanding of Trust, Identity, Privacy and Security (TIPS) issues in the Digital Economy.

Announcing the successful research programmes, Research Councils UK digital economy theme lead Dr John Baird said: “The rapid digital technological changes that have already happened are already having profound effects on the way people live, individually and collectively.

“The advances in the interconnectedness of devices, data and people present both opportunities and challenges. Recent news items around how personal data can be obtained and used highlights the need for research that can understand the complexities socio-technical relationships while also safeguarding the integrity and usefulness of data.” 

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