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points | 10.26.16

Safety Checklists for Sociotechnical Design

Mark Ackerman

D&S fellow Mark Ackerman develops a checklist to address the sociotechnical issues demonstrated in Cathy O’Neil’s Weapons of Math Destruction.

These checklist items for socio-technical design are all important for policy as well. Yet the book makes it clear that not all “sins” can be reduced to checklist form. The book also explicates other issues that cannot easily be foreseen and are almost impossible for implementers to see in advance, even if well-intentioned. One example from the book is college rankings, where the attempt to be data-driven slowly created an ecology where universities and colleges paid more attention to the specific criteria used in the algorithm. In other situations, systems will be profit-generating in themselves, and therefore implemented, but suboptimal or societally harmful — this is especially true, as the book nicely points out, for systems that operate over time, as happened with mortgage pools. Efficiency may not be the only societal goal — there is also fairness, accountability, and justice. One of the strengths of the book is to point this out and make it quite clear.

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