Algorithms and the Social Fabric: Accountability, Governance and Ethics

Algorithms are profoundly changing the world we live in; they seem to be everywhere, yet often hidden and generally poorly understood by the general public. They are referred to as ‘black boxes,’ concealing sophisticated mechanisms that crunch citizen-consumers’ data to make predictions that turn into prescriptions, and lock these subjects into their condition. However, the rise of algorithms may also provide a historical opportunity to reengineer current power structures and decision-making processes within data-infused societies in positive ways.

Public and private sector actors—researchers, companies, governments, financial institutions, non-governmental organizations and also citizen groups—are actively experimenting and adapting algorithmic decision-making tools for various purposes. In what ways are algorithms being used by public and private sector actors in developed and developing countries? To what extent have these algorithms impacted society as a whole and populations within society (specifically, marginalized communities)?

This initiative focuses on the use of public and private sector algorithms, specifically focusing on innovation, accountability, and ethics in developing countries. Our goal is to explore how algorithms have been used by public and private sector actors, and, together with partners and researchers in our network, assess and design technical and non-technical strategies for embedding layers of accountability, transparency, and ethics. Working in areas such as governance innovation, justice, digital news and others, this initiative highlights both the positive opportunities that are created through data-driven algorithmic decision-making, and the potential negative consequences that practitioners should be aware of and address in order to foster accountability, fairness and participation in society.

Initial research, working papers, and articles 

  • The Tyranny of Data? The Bright and Dark Sides of Data-Driven Decision-Making for Social Good
    Bruno Lepri, Jacopo Staiano, David Sangokoya, Emmanuel Letouzé, Nuria Oliver

    Through an analysis of specific use cases and approaches, we elaborate on the need for these algorithms to provide transparency and accountability, preserve privacy and be tested and evaluated in context, by means of living lab approaches involving citizens. We turn to the requirements which would make it possible to leverage the predictive power of data-driven human behavior analysis while ensuring transparency, accountability, and civic participation.


  • As a co-organizer of the Open Algorithms Project (OPAL), we are working with both public and private sector actors on designing open algorithms to safely analyze private sector data (i.e. call detail records) behind company servers to gain insights for sustainable development and official statistics. Recently we’ve conducted the first of several workshops in Dakar, Senegal on algorithmic governance. For more on our work in OPAL, please visit


  • Recent presentations at the Oxford Internet Institute and during the Open Government Partnership Summit in Paris 2016 on the impact of open algorithms for democracy and development

  • In partnership with ThoughtWorks NYC, we’ve hosted two recent discussions on algorithms and society:
    • “Weapons of Math Destruction”: Does Big Data Threaten Democracy & Equality?
      Nominated for a Nonfiction National Book Award, Cathy O Neil (Data-Pop Alliance Research Affiliate) discussed her recent book, Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy. The book argues that the use of algorithms and mathematical models pervade modern life and threaten to rip apart our social fabric, and demands more transparency and ethical standards when using data. The event started with a presentation of the book by the author followed by a panel discussion with Augustin Chaintreau (Columbia University) moderated by Emmanuel Letouzé (Data-Pop Alliance and MIT Media Lab) and Q&A on the use and governance of algorithms in modern societies.
    • Ethical Tech: The Ethics of Algorithms
      A evening discussion on the ethical implications of the rising popularity of algorithmic decision making in everything from criminal justice to humanitarian aid. Panelists included:

      • Hadassah Damien (Technology & Engagement Manager, Participatory Budgeting Project)
      • Emmanuel Letouzé (Director & Co-Founder, Data Pop Alliance)
      • Brittny Saunders (Deputy Commissioner for Strategic Initiatives, NYC Commission on Human Rights)
      • Rob Sherman (Deputy Chief Privacy Officer, Facebook)
      • Sara Jayne Terp (Fmr. Director of Data Projects, Ushahidi / Adjunct Professor, Columbia University).

For more on the various research, training and engagement components of this initiative, please contact


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