Open Source is Not Enough: The Importance of Algorithm Transparency

Accepted Session
Short Form
Scheduled: Thursday, June 26, 2014 from 3:45 – 4:30pm in B201


Opaque algorithms increasingly control our access to information, on the web and beyond. Why is that a problem, and what can we do about it?


When I was a child, before the Internet was common, much of my education was devoted to the tools for accessing information. Dictionaries, atlases, card catalogs, and encyclopedias featured prominently, as did the frameworks necessary to locate information within those resources.

Now, as the analogue has given way to the digital, those indexing frameworks are being replaced by free* tools developed by corporations interested less in selling information to us and more in peddling us to advertisers. In a perfect “Don’t Be Evil” world, this could work out to everyone’s advantage.

Things are rarely perfect, however. By turning over the indexing, organization, and delivery of information to entities who have financial incentives to keep their algorithms opaque to users, we have effectively moved to using a secret, invisible alphabet to organize the dictionary. Sure, sometimes it’s nice to have your needs met “automagically”, but at what cost?

The ordering of Google’s search results, the inclusion of posts in your Facebook feed, the people Twitter recommends you follow: all of these shape your perception of and interaction with the world. In order to critically assess our own perceptions, we need to understand what is doing the shaping.

This talk will explore these issues in more detail, in addition to presenting ideas for promoting algorithm transparency within your own projects.


algorithms, ethics, information, Freedom, equality, understanding

Speaking experience

I have not presented this talk before, so it will be shiny and new for this audience!

Other speaking experience (talk title followed by instances I have given it):

Talk: Data Wrangling: Getting Started with Data for Visualization
-Intel Labs. Hillsboro, OR. October 2012
-Pacific Northwest College of Art. Portland, OR. February 2014

Talk: Visual Analysis of Higher-Order Conjunctive Relationships in Multi-Dimensional Data Using a Hypergraph Query System
-Little Bird. Portland, OR. February 2014
-IEEE Vis. Atlanta, GA. October 2013
-University of Oklahoma. Norman, OK. May 2012

Talk: Dressing Quantitative Data for the Qualitative Ball: A Cinderella Story
-Intel Labs. Hillsboro, OR. May 2013

Talk: I Need Caffeine But I Have No Money
-Classen SAS. Oklahoma City, OK. May 2004.