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Algorithms quietly run the city of DC—and maybe your hometown

Algorithms quietly run the city of DC—and maybe your hometown

Enlarge (credit: Dmitry Marchenko/Getty Images)

Washington, DC, is the home base of the most powerful government on earth. It’s also home to 690,000 people—and 29 obscure algorithms that shape their lives. City agencies use automation to screen housing applicants, predict criminal recidivism, identify food assistance fraud, determine if a high schooler is likely to drop out, inform sentencing decisions for young people, and many other things.

That snapshot of semiautomated urban life comes from a new report from the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC). The nonprofit spent 14 months investigating the city’s use of algorithms and found they were used across 20 agencies, with more than a third deployed in policing or criminal justice. For many systems, city agencies would not provide full details of how their technology worked or was used. The project team concluded that the city is likely using still more algorithms that they were not able to uncover.

The findings are notable beyond DC because they add to the evidence that many cities have quietly put bureaucratic algorithms to work across their departments, where they can contribute to decisions that affect citizens’ lives.

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