Algorithmic Transparency, Bias and Justice

Algorithms are a huge part of modern life. So much so that we sometimes forget they have arrived. Indeed they are primarily “invisible” to everyday people, working behind the scenes to sort data and make decisions that reflect the opinions of a few algorithm designers behind the scenes. Sometimes these algorithms can be life changing/life saving, for example when cancer diagnosis can be made through a combination of machine learning and algorithms that can scan hundreds of thousands of xrays to detect the tiniest irregularity that a human might miss. But other times, like racially biased facial recognition software that might inaccurately identify someone as a criminal suspect – are much more concerning. Increasingly, the ideas of “algorithmic transparency,” “algorithmic racism/bias,” and “algorithmic justice” have come into more prevalent conversation among social justice circles.

There is much learning and development going on with regard to this topic. Of all the “future facing” topics one might consider in terms of urgent need for attention in social work – in my estimation – this is one of the most important. As the rate of adoption of new technologies (most often emerging from the private sector) continues to accelerate, algorithms that don’t incorporate ethical and bias-free dimensions are a frequent point of discussion among social justice advocates. What is the pathway forward and how do we continue to increase social work practice and research attention in this area?

I would suggest that this is the most under-discussed ethical challenge of the future for the profession of social work. We need to dramatically increase the depth, range and focus of our ethical evolution to participate in and shape the future of these technologies that work for people and that prevent harm and injustice. We should concern ourselves with identifying how and where algorithms are starting to emerge and be active in our social work practice spaces (clinical and macro). Collectively – we are starting to develop a shared and critical literacy regarding these important and ubiquitous forces, and challenge a need for clear and explicit ethical guidelines/rules.

For those who are completely new to this topic, here’s a great primer.

While there are pockets of enthusiasm for dialogue about these developments in social work, we have a long way to go to assert where and how we can operate most ethically – and what that looks like given the changing dynamics at play.

Here’s a reading/resource list of resources to get started – with great respect for the groundbreaking work of all who have been leaders in this space.

  • Dr. Desmond Patton is an Associate Professor of Social Work at Columbia University in New York City. I’ve previously listed his work on my blog but want to underscore the significant leadership he’s contributed within social work to this topic. Here’s a recent article he put together for Medium. He’s also the Principal Investigator of the Safe Lab project at Columbia which is a research initiative focused on examining the ways in which youth of color navigate violence on and offline.
  • Data for Black Lives is a national network of over 4,000 activists, organizers, and scientists using data science to create concrete and measurable change in the lives of Black people. For far too long, data has been weaponized against Black communities – from redlining to predictive policing, credit scoring and facial recognition. But we are charting out a new era, where data is a tool for profound social change. (From their website here!)
  • The Institute for the Future has developed an “Ethical OS” toolkit to provide a structure for tech experts to use to deepen their adherence to ethical principles while developing tech tools. Check it out here.

These are the books currently on my shelf on this topic:

Eubanks, V. (2018). Automating inequality: How high tech tools profile, punish and police the poor. New York: St. Martin’s Press. Review here.

Lane, J. (2019). The digital street. New York: Oxford Press. Review here.

Noble, S.U. (2018). Algorithms of oppression: How search engines reinforce racism. New York: New York University Press. Review here.

O’Neill, C. (2016). Weapons of math destruction: How big data increases inequality and threatens democracy. New York: Broadway Books. Review here – scroll down where her TED talk is included.

Also, I’ve collected numerous recent articles about bias, “isms” and ethics concerns regarding algorithmic transparency/bias as follows:

Behind every robot is a human (2019)

The new digital divide is between people who opt out of algorithms and those who don’t (2019)

Collection of new articles from the Brookings Institute regarding AI and the future (2019)

Artificial intelligence is ripe for abuse, tech researcher warns: A fascist’s dream (2019)

Algorithmic Accountability Act (2019)

Amazon Alexa launches its first HIPAA compliant medical unit (2019)

Facial recognition is big tech’s latest toxic gateway app (2019)

That mental health app might share your data without telling you (2019)

Europe is making AI rules now to avoid a new tech crisis (2019)

AI’s white guy problem isn’t going away (2019)

Europe’s silver bullet in global AI battle: Ethics (2019)

A case for critical public interest technologists (2019)

Ethics alone can’t fix big tech (2019)

Government needs an “ethical framework” to tackle emerging technology (2019)

Tech with a social conscience and why you should care (2019)

Trading privacy for security is another tax on the poor (2019)

Congress wants to protect you from biased algorithms, deep fakes and other bad AI (2019)

AI must confront its missed opportunities to achieve social good (2019)

AI systems should be accountable, explainable and unbiased says EU (2019)

One month, 500 thousand face scans: How China is using AI to profile a minority (2019)

How recommendation algorithms run the world (2019)

Facial recognition is the plutonium of AI (2019)

Facial recognition is accurate if you’re a white guy (2018)

Facial recognition software is biased towards white men, researcher finds (2018)

A Social Work Futures Game – LET’S PLAY!!!

Recently, I was asked to develop a futures game for Deans and Directors of Social Work (NADD) around the United States. This is a group I’ve been proud to be part of for the past six years, but will soon be exiting as I end my deanship at Portland State University (for a sabbatical to explore/work on several futures projects and then returning to my faculty position!!)

Gaming is increasingly being used as a method for engaging, educating, focusing and energizing people to work on common goals – it is moving way beyond ideas of “winning and losing” from a futures perspective. While now a few years old, well-known gaming futurist Jane McGonigal has a classic TED talk on this topic – which you can see (and read this accompanying summary) here.

Here’s another more academic article about gaming theory and practice for various populations, settings and purposes in a futures context.

My own futures game is intended:

  • To stretch social work students, faculty and practitioners’ minds to consider possible future trajectories and what it means to be “ready” (as much as possible) for alternative futures.  
  • To develop specific “next steps” in futures readiness planning.
  • To serve as a tool in “foresight” capacity development individually and collectively for social workers and social work educators.
  • To develop our collective agility, creativity and intelligence as a profession regarding the challenges we will face in our shared future.

This is a “beta” version which is to say that I’m planning on making adjustments and will probably add additional scenarios in the future. For now, I invite you (especially if you’re a social worker, student or social work educator) to explore the game and use it in a setting that it might be useful! If you do, please keep me in the loop and share your feedback and ideas about how I can make the game even more relevant and helpful!

You can download the game here!

Here’s to using gaming to build a better world in social work! Have fun!!

Special thanks to Dean Goutham Menon at Loyala University for the invitation to develop and pilot this game, to Dean Nancy Smyth at University of Buffalo for development consultation, and to the participants of the Spring 2019 NADD meeting for participating in the game for the first time and providing invaluable ideas and encouragement.

Activism and the Future: Beyond the Term “Burnout” and Deepening our Ability to Care for Ourselves and Each Other for the Long Haul

Activism, resistance and the right to engage in our democratic process of holding our government (and other elements of our community) accountable is among the most important of our ideals as social workers. These ideas and practices show up in our core mission statements, our codes of ethics and beyond. And if the present moment suggests anything…it suggests a future that will involve deepening need and hopefully commitment by able activists to keep causes moving forward.

Clearly, the work we do is taxing. Movement work can engage and challenge us beyond our limits, requires us to risk, stretch and practice our ideals in often less-than-ideal circumstances.

Sometimes people leave the effort – and sometimes people explain why that happens as “burnout.” If our movements are going to endure, succeed, and advance – and if we have a future that involves true progress…we need to imagine and consider all of the elements we can control that contribute to the loss of key people so important to social justice efforts.

Is social justice work burnout a real thing? Will it impact the future in negative ways if good people don’t stay engaged with social movement efforts? I searched for the ideas of smart folks in this work – to best anchor some of this thinking in my own pursuit of futures frameworks for social work practice.

It is likely that our challenges will increase, that our movement work will get more complex, and that easy solutions to injustice will not be readily apparent. If we are in it for the long haul…what does that mean? How do we best care for each other in our work? And why does that matter for a social work future?

Here is an ongoing list of ideas that I found in the literature related to this topic. These go well beyond the idea of simple “burnout” which is a term recently called into question for being an oversimplification of a much deeper structural set of barriers to well-being. I found these pieces really inspiring – hope you do too! Join in the conversation – and let’s do all we can to build a vibrancy, equity and health in our very demanding work!

Update (December, 2019): This new blog post sums this up in a powerful way. Worth a read.

Social Work Futures: A Call to Action

I’ve been working on a brief statement about my work – and why I think it is so vital (and exciting) for social work to consider at least a review of, if not integration of, futures frameworks in our practice. This blog has been a place to gather the thinking and perspectives of a lot of folks who are doing work in this space. Gradually, I’m going to begin shifting to sharing some of my own original writing as I start to find and use my own “social work futures voice.”

I’m seeking out comments about what I’ve put together – check it out here. Please share your thoughts. Is a futures lens needed in social work? I think so…what about you?

Futures Questions for Social Workers – An Ongoing Exploration

The futures literature (and its related companion areas) are fascinating, shocking, inspirational, scary, stimulating, creative and far-reaching – sometimes all at once! As I read, consider, evaluate, examine and imagine – I return to the idea of how my own profession of social work “relates” to concepts like artificial intelligence, the future of work, block chain and beyond. I think about our social work education “competency-based” turn (requiring evidence of not just knowledge gained, but competencies demonstrated…) – and consider what does it mean to be a competent (let along talented) social worker who is future facing and effective? To stretch in this area – I’ve been working on a thought experiment which has involved simply accumulating questions that I think social work education should wrestle with if our intention is to be ready to meet the future as prepared as we might be. Feel free to offer any additional suggestions – this list is only a start.

Wouldn’t this be a fun list of questions to use in a class just to get conversation going with a group of social work students to help them think “bigger” about our current and future roles, as well as the dynamics most likely to impact the communities we serve? Please try them out – and let me know how the questions work in practice? I’d love to hear back from you!!!

  • How will climate change impact vulnerable populations in my geographic area? What role might I play in preventing/mitigating this and/or engaging vulnerable populations to play a role? How does this issue of climate change consideration “fare” when up against such concerns as poverty, homelessness, health care access, etc.?
  • How will “the future of work” impact vulnerable people in my geographic area? What jobs are disappearing? What does displacement related to this look like? What opportunities exist/should exist for displaced workers?
  • Is access to technology and/or technological resources a social justice issue? What should be done to center it as such?
  • How is increasing monitoring and information/data collection likely to impact vulnerable populations? What levers exist to examine, build ethical guidelines, and get them utilized?
  • What technology is emerging that will likely a) put vulnerable populations at greater risk, or b) empower and engage vulnerable populations? How do issues of “trust” and “privacy” play in spaces where social workers work and vulnerable people have limited resources/power given increasing use of these technologies?
  • What is the future of “my issue” – e.g. child welfare, addictions, mental health, homelessness, social justice, and others? What emergent strategies are considered cutting edge (e.g. guaranteed income/asset building) and where are they being tested and to what end?
  • How will social organizing, political engagement, social change work be impacted by emergence of new tools and are we learning/taking advantage of these new options?
  • What is the future of equity work and how can new technologies and artificial intelligence contribute to or exacerbate equity in our communities? How has expression of racism (and other isms) shifted in a more technologically connected world and who is tracking/addressing this? How? What are the future of these strategies?
  • What is our role in interrupting the work of powerful stakeholders who ignore future impacts on vulnerable people/communities? How can we use state of the art advocacy tools and/or join with others to do so?
  • How can governmental agencies/nation-states who are using futures models influence possible policy targets for us in our practice communities?
  • What role are my national associations and accrediting boards imagining, strategizing and incorporating well-conceptualized and rigorously debated alternate futures to ensure not only success of our profession, but effectiveness in our roles?
  • How will “the future of work” impact social work of the future? How will we partner with artificial intelligence? How will we play a role in designing/testing/challenging/scaling possible technologically-anchored interventions of the future? What technologies do we need to learn/develop fluency in to be ready to achieve our goals while we simultaneously guard our values?
  • Is development of our code of ethics evolving to meet the inevitably complex practice landscape that we will find ourselves in, in the future? What are the most important emerging “cutting edges” of ethics work and how might I consider how they impact me as a social worker?
  • How will technology change the way that health care, legal services, and other key professional services are deployed and how does that have the potential to assist/harm vulnerable people?

This is only a partial list – but you can glean the complexity, risk and opportunity. Here’s to learning, exploring and building answers to as many of these questions as we can!

What happens when a social worker becomes a futurist?

What does it mean for a social worker to become a futurist?  What can social workers add to futures frameworks, strategies and thinking? (You can read more about what futures/foresight practitioners do here.)

In fact, I think we have a unique and powerful analytical perspective (focused on equity, justice, and well-being to name a few) and related skill sets that prepares us to be robust contributors and facilitators for new kinds of conversations about the future, but this is terrain that is seldom written about or explored in our profession.   I want to energize such a dialogue among fellow members of my social work community.     Recently, I’ve been able to complete training as a “foresight practitioner” with the Institute for the Future and I couldn’t help but think about the impact, the intersection and the implications for what comes next in my thinking and my work as a social worker and a burgeoning futurist.  I look forward to having other members of my profession join me in contributing explicitly to futures dialogue. And for this piece, I thought I’d speak directly to other social workers to describe what it has been like so far.

I have been energized (deeply) by the sense of hope, creativity and possibility that a futures lens can bring us – even as insodoing, we must confront possibilities of futures that are difficult and disturbing.    I believe strongly that as social workers, our work, our philosophy, our intellectual terrain, our social science, our hope and our ethics all belong in these spaces – to expand them, and to open new possibilities within our own social work lenses.  The way that we participate in changing social norms and push forward new ways of thinking in terms of social justice and equity is needed.    As we imagine futures full of artificial intelligence, “smart” products – and even body parts, blockchain, the meaning of “equity” in the future – where will we stand? (Other entries in this blog explore an array of futures ideas and terminology…) How do we imagine ourselves to be part of the story of how justice and well-being will prevail? These are questions for future facing social workers.

I believe futures frameworks have great potential to energize and refresh our own thinking about our future as a profession at a pivotal time in our history.  I have never felt so stretched into places that are not “traditionally” social work practice (hello artificial intelligence and deep machine learning), but neither have I ever been so intrigued about the juxtaposition of what could go right with new technologies – and what could go wrong. Where are we investing in the kind of learning that will challenge us in these ways?  

So what happens when a social worker becomes a futurist/futures practitioner?  

We bring our profession.   I am a social worker.   I specialize in addictions work (theory, practice, research and policy).   I am an academic (have served as center director, professor and dean).  I am a person who has grown up in professional spaces and thus, have a sense of the sociology of professions…how they have formed, their strengths, their challenges, their limitations, and their importance to a functioning society.   Being a futures practitioner means I bring new eyes to some longstanding challenges in most professions – how do we (all) truly remain relevant, be of use, keep up with the tsunami of change that the world presents?    How do we revise ourselves, revise our mental maps of our risks and opportunities without losing the core of what we bring to the table?  Some of us are already “out in front” in terms of innovation and future-facing ideas and practice. Colleagues are offering a wide array of new approaches involving technology in social work practice and education and/or being responsive to climate change in ways that are particular and unique from our social work perspectives.  That said, more of us need to join in this thinking and as a profession, we need to organize more spaces to challenge ourselves, each other and our students.

Being a futures practitioner means that I bring tools to help my profession(s) be thoughtful, careful and reflective even as we become more agile and responsive to the changes around us, within our own spaces.  Being a futures-facing social worker means that I’m thinking about, anticipating and strategizing about concepts of power and vulnerability and what they mean in the future – and thus – how our work and strategies might need to change to be effective.

We bring our ethics.   Social work has a code of ethics which is a cornerstone of what we do and how we operate.    As we navigate complexity, uncertainty and change, a code of ethics allows us to have a “rudder” to gauge and calculate our next steps.    Our code of ethics allows me to look at new technology and seek to understand what ethics guide new tech developments, as well as advocate for developments to be responsive to ethical concerns – especially in places where vulnerable people are involved, or e-racism is suspected.  My social work ethics give me a “hard stop” to rigorously think through unintended consequences for vulnerable people and to think through how differential impacts may befall various groups in society in alternate futures scenarios.  Just as importantly, our code of ethics gives me a way to assure my colleagues that we have a lot of co-learning to do as we move into an uncertain future – our code of ethics may sometimes be a puzzle in the future.   Like every profession in the 21st century, we’ll have to stretch and argue about what is an isn’t ethical as we journey into the future – new ethical challenges will present themselves.       But we have a strong foundation to work from and that is an asset.

We bring our questions and curiosity.   The future is full of opportunities AND it is full of risks.   This is especially true for the vulnerable people and groups with whom the social work profession stands.   With environmental and economic uncertainty, with climate change, with increasing pressures to be more responsive to racial/ethnic and other identity-based injustice – social work is a profession that is in a constant process of questioning why?  Why are things arranged the way that they are and how can the future accelerate what is not working, or alternatively, provide new openings and new possibilities for progressive advances?    Right now, the most important thing for future facing social workers to do is to learn and engage.  At first notice, a social worker may not think that block chain or emerging biotechnologies are relevant to them – but when a social worker becomes a futurist, it is clear that these new areas of science, economic development and activity – will have enormous impacts on the world.   As a futures facing social worker, I hope to encourage more and deeper conversation and collaborations to make these advances human- and justice-centered, as we develop and study our efforts.  We have the capacity to generate, develop and execute innovative and impactful practice as well as research – the SW Grand Challenges is an example of this kind of effort. 

We bring our interdisciplinary networks.   Many have suggested that the future is interdisciplinary.   Indeed evidence is growing that most sectors – the current and future challenge faced by society are not going to be “solved” by any one profession.   As a social worker, I have lived through an era where we worked mostly in like groups to a dynamic present where we are comfortable, knowledgeable and competent working in predominantly interdisciplinary settings.   What is most helpful, speaking in futures terms, about this evolution – is that interdisciplinary settings naturally produce new kinds of questions, courses of actions and solutions that are beyond the scope of any one group and only possible through the dynamic intellectual and professional interplay among different points of view.   In these settings, social work also might be among the first professions to advocate that “community” or “consumer” voice also be a central feature of these interdisciplinary approaches so that partnering with impacted individual, groups and communities is always the aspiration as well as the practice.   The future of our work will undoubtedly about engaging with social, technical, biological, economic problems, many of which we can’t yet even name.  Our strengths as interdisciplinary partners prepares us for the most robust and effective contributions.  

We bring our biases and our limitations.  I’m proud of how hard social work has worked on itself to increase its ability to be reflexive, to address its “white savior” roots, to challenge its profession-wide and directly related to our own (my own) individual attitudes and practices as social workers.   That said, we have more to go – we are not done with this work.  We continue to live in a deeply racist, classist and otherwise biased society despite our richly growing global and national diversity.  Our news demonstrates on a daily basis that “isms” remain pervasive, dangerous and destructive.     As a futurist social worker, I must check myself (continuously) and encourage others to do the same to wonder aloud and on purpose if the discourse is being dominated by privileged groups (there are increasingly diverse voices at the table of futures discourse), if voices are missing, if other futures lenses are possible other than those that are increasingly popular or dominant, if those most impacted by the future (youth in particular) shouldn’t have a larger voice in the discourse associated with futures practice.   

We bring our personal histories.   In fact, I’ve ALWAYS been a person who was interested in the future.   As a child, I used to draw pictures of people in dramatic future settings and in high school, I was activated intellectually by reading Alvin Toffler’s “Future Shock” by my visionary high school studies teacher Dr. Karl Keener.   I found the idea of futures thinking to be intriguing, creative, and an application of social imagination that ultimately formed a foundation of each and every academic and professional activity that I have ever done.  Many futures practice folks have similar backstories.  And many social workers, though they might not describe it explicitly this way, chose the career path because they saw social problems and believed things could and should be different.  …That a better future was possible if people joined together to do the right thing.   I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in the future…but implicitly.  I think going on the record as a “futures practitioner” means I make this focus explicit, and the joining with my social work toolbox makes it especially interesting and valuable.   

I also bring my identity as a white, female, cis, straight, upper middle class, first generation college graduate, academic increasingly dedicated to the equity and justice frameworks.    I am a wife.  I am a mother.  I am a daughter.  I am a friend and a colleague.   I am an American.  I am an artist. This personal history and this work, shapes all I do – with both its strengths and limitations. At times, I will need to speak up from my position and present ideas and perspectives – and at times – I will need to assure that other voices, more clearly relevant, need to speak about the past, present and future in ways I cannot know.

Finally, we bring our anger, our humility, our imagination and our love.  It is clear that many decisions locally, nationally and transnationally, are not being made with the future in mind.     Each day the news can be harder than the next.   But all that said, as a future facing social worker – I feel compelled to translate real anger about “the state of the world” into professional determination to do what I can from whichever seat I occupy, and to join (urgently) with others who do that.    We can’t give up – future generations are counting on us.    Let us be inspired by Sweden who actually created a “Minister of the Future” position to guide the entire country’s efforts in this area.      There is no magic wand to fix or control the course of events that will unfold “in the future.” But we can do is use our collective intellect/ability to analyze and ready ourselves and our communities for multiple/possible/intersecting futures, our collective imaginations, and in truth – our love – for our planet, for each other, and for future generations to best shape our preferred future, and defend actively against more dangerous ones.     As a social worker journeying into this space, I’m humbled by this famous quote from Crazy Horse (with a respectful nod to the Indigenous voices who predate all modern futures work with the deepest possible futures convictions): 

“I see a time of seven generations when all the colors of mankind will gather under the sacred tree of life and the whole earth will be one circle again.”

Please join me and add your unique voice as a social worker/change agent – what will you bring to the future? I welcome your ideas and urge you to become part of a social work futures dialogue.

Artificial Intelligence Ideas and Social Work

It is clear that any read of issues of “the future” centers artificial intelligence as a major driver of what is to come. There is a great deal of information out there on this subject. Every profession will likely find themselves impacted by these rapidly changing and expanding technologies – and social work will be no exception. Whether we are directly involved in utilizing these technologies for social good, or addressing social problems that intersect with these tools (and the displacement/or additional social problems they may create), I believe social workers need to learn as much as they can about the power and challenges of these emerging technologies.

AI is and will continue to change the world – social workers must decide for ourselves how best to ethically engage with it as it happens. This curated list is a starting point for social work to learn the lay of the land. This is a HUGE area – so I’m dividing this up into a number of sections.

Fundamentals – what is artificial intelligence?

Here’s the 8 types of artificial intelligence and what you should know about them (2018)

What is artificial intelligence? (2018)

Today’s deep learning “AI” is machine learning not magic (2018)

The non-technical guide to AI (2016)

The jobs AI will create (2017)

Bias in AI

Why AI needs to reflect society (2018)

Racial and gender bias in AI (2017)

Discriminating algorhithms: 5 times AI showed prejudice (2018)

Artificial intelligence has a bias problem (2018)

Using AI for Social Good

Applying AI for social good (2018)

Google using AI for social good guide

AI for Social Good (2017)

Dangers/Concerns of AI

Is AI dangerous? 6 AI risks everyone should know about (2018)

Don’t be afraid of AI (2018)

Limitations of AI

Greedy, brittle, opaque and shallow: The downsides to deep learning (2018)

The real world potential and limitations of AI (2018)

AI and Human Services

AI-augmented human services (2017)

USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work AI Program

All of us in social work need to give the folks at USC Suzanne Dworack-Peck School of Social Work a true bow of respect for the groundbreaking work that they have been doing on this topic INSIDE social work educational and research settings.

Overview of USC AI fellows program

Betting on artificial intelligence to help humanity

USC Center for Artificial Intelligence in Society

Artificial intelligence and social work (book – 2018)