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Algorithms as Social-Ecological-Technological Systems: an Environmental Justice Lens on Algorithmic Audits

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Journal Article

Rakova, Bogdana, and Roel Dobbe. 2023. “Algorithms as Social-Ecological-Technological Systems: An Environmental Justice Lens on Algorithmic Audits.” 2023 ACM Conference on Fairness, Accountability, and Transparency, June, 491–491. https://doi.org/10.1145/3593013.3594014.

This paper reframes algorithmic systems as intimately connected to and part of social and ecological systems, and proposes a first-of-its-kind methodology for environmental justice-oriented algorithmic audits. How do we consider environmental and climate justice dimensions of the way algorithmic systems are designed, developed, and deployed? These impacts are inherently emergent and can only be understood and addressed at the level of relations between an algorithmic system and the social (including institutional) and ecological components of the broader ecosystem it operates in. As a result, we claim that in absence of an integral ontology for algorithmic systems, we cannot do justice to the emergent nature of broader environmental impacts of algorithmic systems and their underlying computational infrastructure. Furthermore, an integral lens provides many lessons from the history of environmental justice that are of relevance in current day struggles for algorithmic justice. We propose to define algorithmic systems as ontologically indistinct from Social-Ecological-Technological Systems (SETS), framing emergent implications as couplings between social, ecological, and technical components of the broader fabric in which algorithms are integrated and operate. We draw upon prior work on SETS analysis as well as emerging themes in the literature and practices of Environmental Justice (EJ) to conceptualize and assess algorithmic impact. We then offer three policy recommendations to help establish a SETS-based EJ approach to algorithmic audits: (1) broaden the inputs and open-up the outputs of an audit, (2) enable meaningful access to redress, and (3) guarantee a place-based and relational approach to the process of evaluating impact. We operationalize these as a qualitative framework of questions for a spectrum of stakeholders. Doing so, this article aims to inspire stronger and more frequent interactions across policymakers, researchers, practitioners, civil society, and grassroots communities. https://arxiv.org/abs/2305.05733.

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