New Zealand establishes algorithm charter for government agencies

A standards guide on how to use algorithms across government.
Written by Aimee Chanthadavong, Contributor

The New Zealand government has launched a set of standards designed to act as a guideline for government agencies on how to use algorithms.

Dubbed as the "first in the world", the Algorithm Charter for Aotearoa New Zealand, according to Minister for Statistics James Shaw, will improve data transparency and accountability, especially when algorithms are being used to process and interpret large amounts of data.

"Using algorithms to analyse data and inform decisions does not come without its risks," he said. "It is important, therefore, that people have confidence that these algorithms are being used in a fair, ethical, and transparent way. And that's what this Charter is all about."

See also: Setting the AI standard: What it could look like in Australia

The charter has so far been signed by 21 agencies: The Department of Corrections, Ministry of Education, Ministry for the Environment, Ministry of Housing and Urban Development, Department of Internal Affairs, Inland Revenue, Ministry of Justice, Land Information New Zealand, Ministry of Māori Development, Ministry for Children, Ministry for Pacific Peoples, Ministry for Social Development, Statistics New Zealand, Ministry of Transport, the NZ Transport Agency, Pike River Recovery Agency, Ministry for Women, the Social Wellbeing Agency, New Zealand Defence Force, The Office for Maori Crown Relations, and the Accident Compensation Corporation.

In signing the charter, the agencies have agreed to commit to a range of measures, including explaining how decisions are informed by algorithms; making sure data is fit for purpose by identifying and managing bias; ensuring that privacy, ethics, and human rights are safeguarded by regularly peer reviewing algorithms; embedding a Te Ao Māori perspective in the development and use of the algorithms; and clearly explaining the role of humans in decisions informed by algorithms.

The development of the charter was a recommendation by the government chief data steward and chief digital officer, who said in a 2018 report that the safe and effective use of operational algorithms required greater consistency across government.

The recommendation was made following an urgent call by the New Zealand government to assess how government agencies were using algorithms to analyse data.

There were claims that New Zealand was potentially using citizen data collected through the country's visa application process to determine those in breach of their visa conditions, such as by filtering people based on their age, gender, and ethnicity

Then-New Zealand Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway, however, rejected the idea. He told Radio New Zealand that Immigration looks at a range of issues, including at those who have made -- and have had rejected -- multiple visa applications.

"It looks at people who place the greatest burden on the health system, people who place the greatest burden on the criminal justice system, and uses that data to prioritise those people," he said at the time.

"It is important that we protect the integrity of our immigration system and that we use the resources that immigration has as effectively as we can -- I do support them using good data to make good decisions about where best to deploy their resources."

The New Zealand government added that the algorithm charter would continue to evolve and be reviewed in 12 months to ensure it achieved its intended purpose without stifling innovation or creating a compliance burden. 

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