Our colleague Nalaka Gunawardene has written a Facebook post where he asks “Robots in politics? Why not?” This provides a gateway for a substantive discussion on the role of technology in governance. First, we have to rephrase the question. I understand politics to be the art of contributing in various ways to governance.
Big data is a team sport. We have people with different skill sets in our team. I can’t code, but I sit in on meeting where arcane details of software are discussed. Our coders spend most of their time on analytics, but think about broader issues such as fairness. So here is a snippet that had the eye of Lasantha Fernando: If you’ve ever applied for a loan or checked your credit score, algorithms have played a role in your life.
As part of our big data work, we’ve been thinking about the opacity of the algorithms we use. The pretty picture and tables that result from the research are persuasive, but if people wanted to know how they were derived, it would not be easy to explain. But then, we have to always think about the alternative. A method may be familiar and may have been used for decades if not centuries. But that does not necessarily make it fair.
I am at the University of Washington in Seattle discussing grand challenges in tech policy. When asked to identify a grand challenge in the tech policy space that was uniquely relevant in my own country, I proposed action to minimize impact on livelihoods as described in the piece I wrote after the April Kelani river flood: As I read general alerts of the type quoted above, I wonder how a person could react. So for example, what do I do, as a resident of Kegalla District, when I am told there is a risk of landslides in the District? For specific action, I would need a specific warning, such as “there is a 75 percent probability of this particular hill looming over my house sliding down if there is more than one hour of continuous rain.” I would need to know where to go.