Public Interest Algorithms

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Tom Wheeler:

"Today, the software algorithms that create social media news feeds are black boxes; we have no idea what goes into them or what comes out and why. My friend and Harvard colleague Wael Ghonim has proposed opening that input/output information as “public interest APIs” (Application Programming Interface), a common software practice that allows third-party access to information. It doesn’t open the algorithm itself, or the privacy protections of users, but it does capture select inputs and outputs of the algorithm.

An example of how this works is Google Maps. This algorithm-driven mapping software is open for use by other applications. Uber, for instance, uses Google Maps’ open API to provide directions to the pick-up point and destination. It is not Uber’s mapping algorithm, but Google’s open API that allows Uber to then build location-based algorithms for their proprietary functions.

Using a similar open API, it becomes possible to build public interest algorithms to monitor and report on the effects of social media algorithms. Humans cannot keep pace with the speed with which these algorithms make content distribution decisions. It takes only minutes to create a new social media post, and seconds to distribute it to the world. To discover that such distribution has occurred and respond factually, however, can takes hours or even days.

A public interest algorithm can do just what the social media algorithms do: assess at computer speed the information coming in and where it is going. Openly available to all (and perhaps even a reference app on the social media platforms themselves), a public interest algorithm can provide awareness of and access to the information behind any posting. Such sunlight will not only expose any propaganda, but also will help independent evaluation of the veracity of the information being delivered.

Today, public interest groups of all political stripes monitor the mainstream media. With a public interest API they could also built public interest algorithms to accomplish the same for social media. To date, algorithms have been problem-creators. It’s time for social media open APIs to enable problem-solving through public interest algorithms."

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