Leading by example: Amsterdam AI register reveals how, when and why the city uses its algorithms

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When we set the smart thermostat, give an online picture a thumbs-up or shop online, algorithms run through every step. What they do precisely is usually obscure and vague. Governments employ more and more artificial intelligence. The City of Amsterdam wants to be more transparent and is opening up about its efforts to the public. Along with the City of Helsinki, they launched the world’s first-ever open AI register, in which the inner workings of their algorithms are carefully explained and for the world to see. 

Where and how do cities use algorithms?

The AI register is launched at the Next Generation Internet Summit. The goal of the register is to show where the city uses algorithms and how they are specifically used. This way they offer transparency to inhabitants of the city. They can now themselves check which steps are being taken by smart software and how they are affected by the code. What happens for example when they fill in an online form on a government website? Or when a parking attendant scans their license plate?

Amsterdam’s AI register currently identifies three different cases in which it uses AI. It details how it uses an algorithm to help employees of the department of Surveillance & Enforcement to prioritise reports of possible fraud with holiday rental housing. There’s also a section explaining the use of algorithms to determine parking infractions. And one that details how smart software makes sure public space issues submitted through an online form are sent to the right department.

Register will include all algorithms

According to Amsterdam’s CTO Ger Baron, the register doesn’t offer a complete overview of every algorithm the city uses: “We wanted to start with three uses of algorithms that are very visible and affect everyone in Amsterdam. The goal is to have every algorithm we use in the register, even though we don’t use thát many yet.”

Innovation officer Linda van de Fliert is responsible for writing the white paper on the AI register. She says they chose these three use cases as an example of different disciplines: “They offer a good mix, in that they are relatively complex yet offer the opportunity to give a lot of information. For example, there’s one that has a lot of code documented on Github, while another one uses software from a third party supplier.” 

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The City of Amsterdam now offers an overview of what it does, written in plain, understandable language. You don’t have to be a developer or engineer to understand it. Next to the overview, it details who or what is accountable, which datasets it uses, how that data is processed and how it complies with nondiscrimination laws. The register also reveals in what part of the process a human civil servant is involved. If possible, there is a link to the code, an example of the process in pseudo-code and links to relevant sites containing the datasets. 

Other European cities will follow

According to Baron and Van de Fliert, the foundation of the register was laid three years ago when the city presented its digital agenda. It determined several purchasing conditions for algorithms the city was going to use. “But we wanted to be transparent ourselves as well”, says Van de Fliert. “So at the end of last year, we started work on the register itself.” 

Together with Finnish AI transparency platform Saidot, it presented the first-ever register. Van de Fliert: “Once you have this cooperation and release a product, it is very easy to scale to other cities.” 

According to Baron, Amsterdam works closely with, for instance, London, Barcelona and Berlin on several software projects. Chances are it won’t take long before they follow suit and present a similar register. Van de Fliert also sees broad cooperation in The Netherlands, with provinces, land register, water authority or the police.

Now that the register is live, inhabitants of Amsterdam can see for themselves how AI is being used all over the city. “We don’t expect all of Amsterdam to have a look”, says Baron. “But there are thousands of people working in the tech industry in Amsterdam. They will understand this, they get this.” On top of that, baring their algorithms for the world to see, forces the city to dot its I’s and cross its T’s when it comes to the use of software. Baron: “It forces us to apply a certain level of hygiene in our code.” 

‘Release early, release often’

“We don’t want to develop all of this in isolation”, says Van de Fliert. “We are looking to start a conversation with inhabitants of the city. To see what they want to know about algorithms. But this is the first step”, she says, while adding a known adage from the software world: “We wanted to release early and release often.”

Now that Amsterdam has set  an example, it’s not just cities or governmental organisations who should follow suit. Baron: “It should be standard for every organisation. Of course we want a transparent government, but we expect private companies to go down the same route.” Van de Fliert: “This technical transparency means it should be able to explain, as a company, what your algorithm does and how it affects people, without revealing the secret sauce in your code.”

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Dennis de Vries

Writes about technology for as long as anyone remembers. Hangs out with Apple, Samsung and Sony, but is just as interested in the Google-killer you're currently building in your parents' garage. You can reach him via [email protected]

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