NZ to perform urgent algorithm 'stocktake' fearing data misuse within government

The 'stocktake' is aiming to ensure government agencies are performing analytics on citizen data in a transparent and fair manner.

The New Zealand government has announced it will be assessing how government agencies are using algorithms to analyse data, hoping to ensure transparency and fairness in decisions that affect citizens.

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A joint statement from Minister for Government Digital Services Clare Curran and Minister of Statistics James Shaw said the algorithm "stocktake" will be conducted with urgency, but cites only the growing interest in data analytics as the reason for the probe.

"The government is acutely aware of the need to ensure transparency and accountability as interest grows regarding the challenges and opportunities associated with emerging technology such as artificial intelligence," Curran said.

It was revealed in April that Immigration New Zealand may have been using citizen data for less than desirable purposes, with claims that data collected through the country's visa application process that was being used to determine those in breach of their visa conditions was in fact filtering people based on their age, gender, and ethnicity.

Rejecting the idea the data-collection project was racial profiling, Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway 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.

"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."

In the statement on Wednesday, Shaw pointed to two further data-modelling projects the government had embarked on, with one from the Ministry of Health looking into the probability of five-year post-transplant survival in New Zealand.

"Using existing data to help model possible outcomes is an important part of modern government decision-making," Shaw said.

"Examples include computer programs used by the Ministry of Health to ensure donated organs save lives, or the NZ Transport Agency's computer modelling to make our roads safer.

"They show the power of data to make a positive difference to New Zealanders, but there are challenges as well, and we need to ensure that transparency and procedural fairness are maintained. That's why we've asked officials to examine how government currently uses algorithms, to give New Zealanders confidence that their data is being used appropriately."

The stocktake will be led by government chief data steward Liz MacPherson, who is currently the chief executive of Stats NZ, alongside government chief digital officer Colin MacDonald, who is the chief executive of the Department of Internal Affairs.

The first step will be a review of government's use of algorithms which is expected to be completed by August.

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