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This Week in Civic Tech: GSA Restructures to Protect Tech Programs, Can Big Data Be Biased?

A look back at highlights and happenings in the world of civic tech.

This Week in Civic Tech presents a line-up of notable events in the space that connects citizens to government services. Topics cover latest startups, hackathons, open data initiatives and other influencers. Check back each week for updates.

GSA Restructures to Shelter Tech Programs

On May 3, the General Services Administration (GSA) pulled back the curtains on a structural change that will house two of the president’s primary digital services under a new roof. The ex-Silicon Valley technologists at 18F and the Presidential Innovation Fellows are uniting under the Technology Transformation Service (TTS). U.S CIO Tony Scott said the new entity, which will also include the GSA’s Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies (OCSIT), represents the GSA’s third service line: It will function alongside the group’s Public Buildings Service, which manages government real estate, and its Federal Acquisition Service.

The purpose of TTS is geared toward IT development, procurement and the incubation of emerging technologies.

“By harnessing the collective power of 18F, the team at the Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies, and the Presidential Innovation Fellows (PIFs), the Technology Transformation Service will strengthen the way federal agencies develop, buy and share cutting-edge solutions ...” Scott in a GSA press release.

Leading the new outfit as its commissioner is Phaedra Chrousos, the former associate administrator at the OCSIT and 18F. Aaron Snow, executive director at 18F, joins her as TTS deputy commissioner.

The announcement may be as much about efficiency and innovation as it is about preserving President Obama's tech legacy. Follow 18F and its sister agency at the U.S. Digital Services (USDS), and a question often arises: “What will happen after the president leaves office?”

Fears of a digital whitewash to rebrand under a new president are valid concerns considering that in some cases, 18F, the PIFs and USDS have been crucial to modernizing federal IT while saving agencies a significant amount of dollars in tech procurement. The Obama administration has already protected the USDS by housing individual teams within many federal agencies. However, the PIF program — tasked with solving national problems through year-long tech fellowships — did not previously enjoy this kind of institutionalized protection.

Since it was founded in 2013, PIF was administered through a partnership between the White House and the GSA. The restructuring secures PIFs' work by inserting it into a separate federal agency. 18F, already part of the GSA, gains added traction as a core component of the new service.

Other efforts to cement presence of 18F and USDS in the federal government have included an ongoing hiring campaign of technical talent in the groups with one- to two-year contracts — work agreements that extend beyond Obama’s term in office.

Big Data: A Civil Rights Issue

Can big data be biased? That’s the question a White House report released May 4 has investigated the answer to, analyzing the dangers big data might pose in the areas of employment, education, credit accessibility and criminal justice procedures. The White House published the report in conjunction with a blog post coauthored by U.S. Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith, U.S. Chief Data Scientist D.J. Patil, and Domestic Policy Council Director Cecilia Muñoz.

The three credited big data for its game-changing benefits while stressing the serious threats linked with misuse.

“The algorithmic systems that turn data into information are not infallible — they rely on the imperfect inputs, logic, probability, and people who design them ...,” the three said. “Without deliberate care, these innovations can easily hardwire discrimination, reinforce bias and mask opportunity.”

In the report, titled Big Data: A Report on Algorithmic Systems, Opportunity, and Civil Rights, analysts looked at case studies in each issue while underscoring the potential for errors in algorithms. In hiring, for example, a programmer could create a selection algorithm that favors data inputs — personal details and job skillsets submitted by applicants — that favor men instead of women, whites instead of minorities, or wealthier income earners over the poor. The actions may be intentional or unintentional, but once in an algorithm and processing thousands of resumes, they could serve as an invisible wall.

Since many algorithms — like Google’s search algorithm, for example — are not open to public scrutiny, it would likely be difficult, and perhaps impossible, to enforce regulatory laws for non-discriminatory code. In the report, however, the Obama administration recommended public-private collaboration, promotion of research, algorithm self-auditing within industries, and tech education as means to address the challenge.

Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.