Voices in the Code: Citizen Participation for Better Algorithms

Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

Voices in the Code, by David G. Robinson, is finally out. I had the opportunity to read the book prior to its publication, and I could not recommend it enough. David shows how, between 2004 and 2014 in the US, experts and citizens came together to build a new kidney transplant matching algorithm. David’s work is a breath of fresh air for the debate surrounding the impact of algorithms on individuals and societies – a debate typically focused on the negative and sometimes disastrous effects of algorithms. While David conveys these risks at the outset of the book, focusing solely on these threats would add little to a public discourse already saturated with concerns. 

One of the major missing pieces in the “algorithmic literature” is precisely how citizens, experts and decision-makers can make their interactions more successful, working towards algorithmic solutions that better serve societal goals. The book offers a detailed and compelling case where a long and participatory process leads to the crafting of an algorithm that delivers a public good. This, despite the technical complexities, moral dilemmas, and difficult trade-offs involved in decisions related to the allocation of kidneys to transplant patients. Such a feat would not be achieved without another contribution of the book, which is to offer a didactical demystification of what algorithms are, normally treated as a reserved domain of few experts.

As David conducts his analysis, one also finds an interesting reversal of the assumed relationship between technology and participatory democracy. This relationship has mostly been examined from a civic tech angle, focusing on how technologies can support democratic participation through practices such as e-petitions, online citizens’ assemblies, and digital participatory budgeting. Thus, another original contribution of this book is to look at this relationship from the opposite angle: how can participatory processes better support technological deployments. While technology for participation (civic tech) remains an important topic, we should probably start paying more attention to how participation can support technological solutions (civic for tech).           

Continuing on through the book, other interesting insights emerge. For instance, technology and participatory democracy pundits normally subscribe to the virtues of decentralized systems, both from a technological and institutional perspective. Yet David depicts precisely the virtues of a decision-making system centralized at the national level. Should organ transplant issues be decided at the local level in the US, the results would probably not be as successful. Against intuition, David presents a clear case where centralized (although participatory) systems might offer better collective outcomes. Surfacing this counterintuitive finding is a welcome contribution to debates on the trade-offs between centralization and decentralization, both from a technological and institutional standpoint. 

But a few paragraphs here cannot do the book justice. Voices in the Code is certainly a must-read for anybody working on issues ranging from institutional design and participatory democracy, all the way to algorithmic accountability and decision support systems.


P.s. As an intro to the book, here’s a nice 10 min. conversation with David on the Marketplace podcast.