Martin Tisné
Investment Partner

Why We Invested: Data & Society

The idea that an algorithm could make discriminatory decisions on matters of employment or criminal justice is not just a worrying hypothetical, but a reality. In 2016, Pro Publica investigated the use of recidivism risk scores in Broward County, Florida. In ProPublica’s study, the algorithm to predict the likelihood of committing future crimes disproportionately misclassified black defendants: among those who did not commit another crime, black defendants were twice as likely as whites to be given a medium or high risk score.

The development of ever more complex and sophisticated tools to automate decisions that significantly impact our lives is accelerating and expanding rapidly. These tools are being employed by many public and private entities for activities ranging from the allocation of public resources, alternative credit scoring, tailoring our newsfeeds and as described, seeking to identify criminal recidivism. As such, there is a critical need to not only better understand the unintended consequences and tensions that may arise from the use of these tools, but also to develop ways to ensure they are fair, ethical, and accountable.

Interest in the accountability and ethics of artificial intelligence and data-centric technologies, including automated decision making, is growing. However, it is still a nascent field that crucially lacks high quality and accessible research, and a diverse network of multidisciplinary experts. To help address this need, Omidyar Network is providing a two-year grant of $850,000 to Data & Society, a research institute based in New York, which is at the forefront of addressing these gaps. Data & Society not only provide critical thought leadership and research, but also aim to bridge disciplinary silos between technologists, policymakers, activists, and academics, to connect and engage stakeholders across both public and private sectors. This core funding will enable Data & Society to implement its organizational strategy, build out its team and senior leadership and support the organization as it explores and develops new research streams and programmatic areas.

Data & Society focuses on the social and cultural issues arising from the development of data-centric technology. Its research cuts across the themes of automation, civil rights and fairness, ethics, and privacy, and ranges from short term exploratory projects on emergent areas of interest, to longer term established initiatives focused on topics including, the role of algorithms in shaping media consumption and employment discrimination. One of its recent publications, for a project aiming to reframe debates around the rise of machine intelligence, explores the social impacts of artificial intelligence (AI) systems, and provides potential solutions to mitigate these challenges.

In addition, Data & Society hosts a cohort of residents and researchers from a range of backgrounds, with the dual purpose of producing exceptional research, and strengthening the intellectual community within the organization, and field more broadly. Through this effort, Data & Society is directly convening across sectors (e.g., connecting criminal lawyers to software developers) and cultivating a set of people who can develop frameworks to understand the complex nature of the issues at play. Without these, the necessary interventions, policy, and/or regulation to mitigate potential harm will remain out of reach.

Alongside our $10 million investment in the recently launched Ethics and Governance of Artificial Intelligence Fund, our support for Data & Society contributes to a growing portfolio of grants and investments within the Governance & Citizen Engagement initiative at Omidyar Network. These investments will focus on ensuring that data-centric technologies, automated decision-making, and AI are developed for the public good by building in better accountability, governance, and ethical safeguards.

To that end, we are pleased to support a dynamic and forward-looking organization such as Data & Society, that is tackling emergent and existing challenges at the intersection of technology and society.

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