Algorithmic Accountability Reporting: On the Investigation of Black Boxes

How can we characterize the power that various algorithms may exert on us? And how can we better understand when algorithms might be wronging us? What should be the role of journalists in holding that power to account? In this report I discuss what algorithms are and how they encode power. I then describe the idea of algorithmic accountability, first examining how algorithms problematize and sometimes stand in tension with transparency. Next, I describe how reverse engineering can provide an alternative way to characterize algorithmic power by delineating a conceptual model that captures different investigative scenarios based on reverse engineering algorithms’ input-output relationships. I then provide a number of illustrative cases and methodological details on how algorithmic accountability reporting might be realized in practice. I conclude with a discussion about broader issues of human resources, legality, ethics, and transparency.

Nicholas Diakopoulos, 2014, Algorithmic Accountability Reporting: On the Investigation of Black Boxes, Columbia University Academic Commons,