Participatory research to improve artificial intelligence based public sector services and empower citizens

Multidisciplinary research team invites citizens, civil servants and software developers to identify risks and potential of algorithmic services – and helps providers address upcoming EU regulations

Article by Minna Tiainen, Aalto University, February 8, 2022.

Public services are increasingly relying on algorithms – they recommend books for library users, support welfare and immigration guidance, and even provide mothers-to-be advice through chatbots. While such services can make our lives easier, all algorithmic projects also entail risks such as bias, discrimination, and the misuse of personal information.

‘We have to guard ourselves from algorithmic systems that make inferences about us that may not be fair or accurate,’ Professor of Practice Nitin Sawhney from Aalto University and the Finnish Center for Artificial Intelligence FCAI says.

Sawhney leads a new four-year research project called Civic Agency in AI (CAAI) that seeks to help the public sector, particularly in the cities of Helsinki and Espoo, assure that their current and upcoming Artificial Intelligence (AI) tools and practices are transparent, accountable, and equitable.

‘Even with something as simple as book-borrowing history, you could imagine how an actor you didn’t trust could make unintended interpretations about you. If you are doing research on terrorism, they might think that you are a terrorist yourself’, Sawhney exemplifies potential pitfalls.

The project will highlight best practices and develop generalizable recommendations for good governance. It involves multiple case studies that evaluate existing or planned AI systems in the Finnish public sector; these may include new migrant digital counseling services in the City of Espoo and chatbots serving the customers of the Kela Social Welfare Services.

‘We want to empower all stakeholders to make better decisions and have them understand the implications of these technologies,’ Sawhney says.

To make sure all relevant perspectives are heard, the researchers conduct interviews and set up workshops for algorithmic literacy and the participatory design of new digital services with stakeholders from citizen activists to software developers and administrators. The project involves a cross-disciplinary team with expertise in computer science, human-computer interaction, law, sociology, and linguistics.

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Image: Matti Ahlgren / Aalto University