How ProPublica is using algorithms to report about tech companies
Katherine Schwab of Fast Company writes about how ProPublica is building algorithms to help it report stories about tech companies such as Facebook and Amazon.
Schwab writes, “It’s a tactic being pioneered at the nonprofit news organization ProPublica by a team of reporters, programmers, and researchers led by Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Julia Angwin. Angwin’s team specializes in investigating algorithms that impact people’s lives, from the Facebook News Feed to Amazon’s pricing models to the software determining people’s car insurance payments and even who goes to prison and for how long. To investigate these algorithms, they’ve had to develop a new approach to investigative reporting that uses technology like machine learning and chatbots.
“‘The one thing that’s been so interesting about the algorithms project that I would never have guessed is that we’ve ended up having to build algorithms all the time,’ says Angwin, who has been writing about data and surveillance for more than a decade. It’s a resource-intensive, deeply challenging task in a media landscape where few are willing to invest in large projects, but Angwin views her team’s reporting as essential to holding big tech companies accountable and providing lawmakers with concrete evidence of wrongdoing. ‘We’re going to get police hats for our New Year’s presents,’ she jokes.
“ProPublica didn’t start off using technology as an investigative tool. The team got its foothold in 2016 with a blockbuster story about criminal risk scores. Their report revealed that these scores, which are generated by an algorithm and used by judges to make decisions about bail and prison sentences, are rife with systemic racism: Black men were often rated as being higher risk than white men with very similar criminal histories. (Independent researchers have disputed the results.) The reporting was done the old-fashioned way, through Freedom of Information Act requests. Angwin’s team first dipped its toes into building algorithms for a story on Amazon’s pricing algorithm. A former programmer for ProPublica ran tests, ironically using AWS servers, on all kinds of hypotheses–like if Amazon charged more on mobile versus desktop or for Prime versus non-Prime members–ultimately finding that Amazon prioritizes products it sells in its listings rather than giving customers the best price.”
Read more here.