I recently finished Weapons of Math Destruction (subtitled, How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy) by Cathy O’Neil.

The one-sentence summary version: It’s a quick and easy read for those looking to understand how algorithms are being used with inappropriate or non-existent feedback loops to affect people’s everyday lives, while especially compounding problems for those on the lower end of the socioeconomic totem pole.

Overall, I agree with the author’s message. The examples given in the book, while occasionally oversimplified, were tangible and easily understood. However, at times I became distracted by the way opinion and description were woven together.

In some cases, it’s clear that an algorithmic method of decision making was broken, because it was flawed and did not actually accomplish the public policy goal it was supposed to accomplish. In other cases, though, the algorithm was described as broken even if it accomplished exactly what it set out to do. You can easily argue that people were harmed in the process, and that in order to prevent people from being harmed, we must regulate the ways in which certain data may be used, but you have to make that argument. You have to show evidence why the rights of the consumers (witting or unwitting) of the algorithm trump the rights of the algorithm’s creators to use it in that way. I think the case is often easy to make, but I feel like there were several times when the author assumed that this was implicit and then left out that argument.

In any case, it’s a fast read, so if this is a topic that interests you, it may be worth your time.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of individuals in determining how organizations are governed. It’s very tempting to describe organizations as if they are persons, to anthropomorphize them as if the organization itself were somehow controlling its own destiny. But that’s an oversimplification in most circumstances, and not a very helpful one. Sure, there is some portion of emergent behavior that we can observe and describe, but that behavior may be better explained by looking at the circumstances experienced by those in control than by some inherent property of the organization itself.

Much of my thought on this has been inspired by my reading of The Dictator’s Handbook, which itself was inspired by watching the short video below.

It’s time to start thinking about how to get the western edge of the Triangle more involved in the growing community of open government events taking place this year. As a past attendee of several of these events, I wanted to make sure these upcoming events are on your radar, and ask you to get involved in the growing collaboration between civically minded citizens and the fast-growing local tech sector. Continue reading

Erin and I traded fortune cookies at Red Lotus tonight. Mine said something about finally being recognized for the work I put in, and hers said this. Given her recent hiring at the agency where she has served as an Americorps member, and my general analytical nature, I think we just grabbed each others destined cookies.

With the start of the new year, many people take this time to resolve to get a better handle on their personal finances. Whether this means making and sticking to a budget, reducing unnecessary expenses, or simply getting a better understanding of their financial situation, pretty much any approach to person finance is dependent on having a good idea of the numbers inside their bank accounts, where they come, and where they go. Continue reading

Do you think music software is only the domain of expensive proprietary software? Think again. There are literally hundreds of applications out there designed by, and for, those with a musical bent. Music projects, including many projects specifically for the Linux operating system, flourish in the open source community as musicians take to coding to produce tools to make their lives easier. Continue reading

Genealogy, the study of family histories, is a popular pastime for millions of people worldwide. Individuals seeking to learn more about their pedigree or simply discover more about their family’s past have built vibrant communities of like-minded (and possibly related) individuals to help each other play historical detective and track down the missing links in their chain of ancestry. Continue reading

LEGO bricks: To a parent, they’re a virtual minefield, hidden away in the carpet to inflict unimaginable pain from a seemly innocent barefoot step. But to a child, they are a tool for creatively engineering anything the mind can imagine. And for many, they are our first foray into open source. The instructions with a LEGO set start out as rigid rules, and become merely guidelines as children learn to remix, adapt, and extend the “code” which defines the object being built, and then be shared with anyone nearby. Continue reading

When it comes to recipes, it pays to be organized. Years of clipped recipes and notes written on napkins stuffed between the pages of countless dirtied cookbooks aren’t necessarily the best way to organize a recipe collection. And let’s be honest, you were probably never going to cook 95% of the recipes in those books anyway, so why not shed them for a more modern solution. Continue reading

This year’s municipal election is over. There were wins I was proud of and losses that deeply disappointed me. Regardless of who you supported in this year’s elections, I think we can all agree that everyone who ran should be given our thanks for stepping up to the plate; that the incumbents who lost should be given our gratitude for their years of service; and that the council and mayoral newcomers should now be given our help, advice, and honest feedback to keep Chapel Hill moving forward on progressive issues. Continue reading