Algorithms and Ethics: Brainstorming Solutions

By jdixon

Algorithms are everywhere. Of particular interest, algorithms that are used “to select what is most relevant from a corpus of data composed of traces of our activities, preferences, and expressions” can be extraordinarily powerful tools.1 Such algorithms determine advertisements seen online or received in the mail, posts that appear prominently on social media feeds, even hiring and firing decisions. They impact innumerable aspects of many people’s daily lives. And, as one recent post from the University of Oxford’s “Practical Ethics” blog noted, the way algorithms “function and are used . . . whether in computers or as a formal praxis in an organization – matters morally because they have significant and nontrivial effects.” 2

Many algorithms provide a great benefit to our society, helping human beings to organize and simplify a constantly-expanding and complicated universe of data. In some situations, however, they can also have adverse and inhumane effects – for example, by invading individuals’ privacy or producing results based on incomplete or otherwise flawed data. Accordingly, all involved parties – information technology innovators who create algorithms, corporations that make use of algorithms for business gain, technology consumers whose use of algorithm-enhanced products has catalyzed the present ubiquity of such systems – have an obligation to think about and develop ethical approaches to the current landscape. How do we even begin to approach this enormous task?

In March 2015, the Centre for Internet and Human Rights and the Technical University of Berlin hosted a conference on “The Ethics of Algorithms,” at which academics and technology professionals from the United States and Europe grappled with these very issues. A background paper from that conference identified a subset of algorithms that are of the greatest ethical concern, and the specific attributes that require heightened scrutiny: “complexity and opacity, gatekeeping functions [determining ‘what gets attention, and what is ignored’], and subjective decision-making.” 3

That same paper also proposed a handful of appropriate regulatory responses to problematic algorithms, weighing the pros and cons of each. This provides an excellent starting point for any discussion of the ethical challenges of algorithms.

The first proposed response is “algorithmic transparency and notification.” Transparency in algorithms is a challenging proposition – in part because most algorithms are so complex that lay people would not be able to understand them even if they were opened up to scrutiny. In addition, many programmers and corporations keep the secrets of their algorithms close to the vest and would not give them up without a colossal fight. While some openness is a fantastic goal and is necessary for a dialogue about ethical algorithms, on its own this is not a realistic or adequate solution. An alternative to full transparency, however, is “notification,” which envisions more consumer engagement with the manner and extent of data provided to algorithms: “Consumers can demand for control over their personal information that feeds into algorithms which might have a considerable effect on their lives. This includes the rights to correct information and demand their personal information to be excluded from the database of data vendors.”

A second response, “algorithmic accountability,” asks that we question how and why algorithms work as they do: “causal explanations that link our digital experiences with the data they are based upon [which] can empower individuals to better understand how the algorithms around them are influencing their life-worlds.” Indeed, the conference paper describes investigations as to how algorithms produce certain outcomes, even if such investigations do not create a definitive explanation, as an “essential precondition for the public scrutiny of algorithms.”

Finally, the paper approaches the possibility of “governments directly regulating an algorithm,” with regulation of algorithms in the financial sector as one appropriate example. This regulatory approach becomes more complicated, however, if applied to government regulation of search engines: “even deciding what would be in the ‘public interest’ is a complex and contested question, exactly because there is no right answer to how [a search engine] should rank its results.” Such regulation would be controversial and difficult (if not impossible) to manage. It could also serve to discourage innovation in the development of algorithms, at a time when we should foster creativity and flexibility among programmers.

None of these regulatory responses is perfect. What this discussion does make apparent, however, is that algorithms are valuable yet imperfect tools and, especially as they become increasingly central to our lives, they should be scrutinized through a lens of fairness and ethics.  

Indeed, as the previously referenced University of Oxford blog post puts it: “We cannot and should not prevent people from thinking, proposing, and trying new algorithms: that would be like attempts to regulate science, art, and thought. But we can as societies create incentives to do constructive things and avoid known destructive things.”

Some awareness of the impact of algorithms on humanity, both positive and negative, can go a very long way, along with consideration of our ethical obligations as the drivers of the algorithm environment. The most important thing is to not fall into a trap of thinking about algorithms – as autonomous as they may appear when designed skillfully – as something independent of their human creators, for which humans do not bear full responsibility.

As Tarleton Gillespie recommends in the article The relevance of algorithms, we “must unpack the warm human and institutional choices that lie behind these cold mechanisms . . . to see how these tools are called into being by, enlisted as part of, and negotiated around collective efforts to know and be known.” Such inquiry can help us make ethical choices about our use of algorithms. When used thoughtfully, algorithms can be an extraordinary tool for the common good.

  1.  Gillespie T. (2014). The relevance of algorithms. Media Technologies: Essays on Communication, Materiality, and Society. Eds. T. Gillespie, P. Boczkowski, and K. Foot. Cambridge: MIT Press, 167–194.
  2. Sandberg, A. (2015, Oct. 6). Don’t write evil algorithms. (Web log post). Retrieved from:
  3. Center for Internet and Human Rights.  (March 2015). The ethics of algorithms: from radical content to self-driving cars. (Final draft background paper). Retrieved from

Preservation and Community Engagement at the Brooklyn Historical Society

By jdixon

The Othmer Library and Archives of the Brooklyn Historical Society are home to a comprehensive collection spanning 400 years of the borough’s history: over 33,000 books, 1,600 archival collections, 1,200 oral history interviews, 50,000 photographs, 8,000 artifacts, 300 paintings, and 2,000 maps. Such a diverse collection calls out for varied and creative preservation and presentation solutions. I recently visited the Library and saw first hand that it is equal to the task, having undertaken a variety of activities to maintain these collections and encourage community engagement with local Brooklyn history.

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The Society’s Brooklyn Heights home opened in 1881.

The Library’s reading room, housed on the second floor of a beautiful landmark building in Brooklyn Heights, is open to the public during the Society’s regular hours. Many materials, such as historical maps, are readily available to patrons without an appointment. The practices in the main reading room demonstrate the Library’s efforts to strike a balance between unrestricted access and the protection of archival materials. When possible, even very old materials are publicly accessible, and where necessary patrons will be instructed in proper handling of delicate items or provided with tools like cradles or special weights. All of these materials are well protected – for example a collection of fire insurance maps, dating from 1846 to 1932, have been flattened, placed in protective sleeves, and organized in bound volumes for researchers to peruse as they wish.

Many materials, in particular those which are too delicate to remain in the open public stacks, are stored in the archives on the second level of the reading room and may be visited by appointment. The Library’s collection of directories, dating from 1736 to 1938, are one of the extraordinary resources stored upstairs, and contain a wealth of information on the local residents and commerce of their day. These materials are frequently used by patrons researching genealogy or property histories – as I learned, these are the most frequent public uses of the Library – finding connections to local history with the help of archival materials.

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Delicate newspapers in an upstairs conservation corner (l); closed stacks books (r)

The Library is also digitizing its collection of photographs, and to date has digitized approximately 33,000 from its collection. 4,000 of these are accessible online and the remaining can be viewed on-site. These photographs include images of Brooklyn, dating back to the 1870s, and family portraits and candid photographs of Brooklyn residents. In their pre-digital states these images run the gamut of photographic formats such as daguerreotypes, tintypes, cartes de visite, glass negatives and slides, stereographic prints, and negatives. This digitization process is ongoing, and additional images are regularly digitized, including by patron request.

The Library also plans to digitize oral history recordings currently stored on tape. The oral history collection includes over 1,200 individual interviews in English, Spanish, Cantonese, and Mandarin. When available, researchers can access the audio and video of interviews in addition to the transcript, adding additional layers of understanding that may not be gleaned from simply reading words on a page. So long as interviewees have given permission for their oral histories to be shared, these records are available in the Library without an appointment. Librarians can also send transcripts to patrons who wish to access oral history information remotely.

In addition to providing public access through on-site and online research, the Library participates in educational initiatives with local schools. For example, beginning in 2011, the Society partnered with colleges like Long Island University, City Tech, and Saint Francis College in the Students and Faculty in the Archives (“SAFA”) program to teach students through primary archival materials. Professors set aside selected materials and students learn to properly handle them, demystifying what could otherwise be an intimidating and unfamiliar setting. Making archival materials available to students and to the general public – not just professional scholars – promotes community engagement, connection, and dialogue. Students learn that the Library contains their history, and they are empowered to use Library resources to create their own projects.

Brooklyn is a large and diverse urban center, and developing a collection that adequately reflects Brooklyn is, and will always be, a work in progress. From its founding in 1863 until 1985 the Society was called the Long Island Historical Society, and its collections spanned beyond Brooklyn to general United States history. Such materials were deaccessioned in the mid-twentieth century in an effort to narrow the Society’s focus. Today, the Library’s Collections Committee evaluates all proposed donations to ensure that they fit with this concentration, and will decline donations that would be better suited to a different home. Also, there are shelves of unprocessed Library materials stored in the closed stacks, which will steadily be incorporated into the collection or deaccessioned. Curating the collection and ensuring that new materials fit the Society’s mission, as well as creating meaningful finding guides, is a large task that cannot be accomplished overnight. Librarians have prioritized quality end results over rushed completion of processing.

Equally impressive are the Library’s efforts to maintain collections that reflect Brooklyn’s diversity. One major oral history project, for example, is called “Crossing Borders, Bridging Generations” and reflects experiences of growing up with a mixed heritage. Another interesting collection, stored in the archives and available by appointment, are the slavery pamphlets – eighteenth and nineteenth century copies of speeches, sermons, and reports from anti-slavery or colonization societies – primary sources from an important era in Brooklyn history. In a similar vein, a current exhibit in the Society’s museum – which draws heavily from the Library and Archive collections – is entitled “In Pursuit of Freedom” and explores Brooklyn’s abolitionist movement. Another exhibit examines the Disability Rights Movement in New York City, with audio versions of the exhibit and braille copies of exhibit labels made available. Clearly, the collections are not limited to the history of any single Brooklyn population.

My visit to the Brooklyn Historical Society Library demonstrated the complexities of maintaining an archive and supporting a cultural heritage institution in today’s digital world.  It is not enough just to preserve collections through paper enclosures or mylar sleeves and organize them for scholars. Archives must also also ensure public access through digitization and education programs, and grow collections to reflect the diversity of the local population. If archive development and digitization are said to create and foster cultural heritage and social memory, then the Brooklyn Historical Society’s Library collections are building an inclusive and dynamic Brooklyn heritage.  The Society’s commitment to community engagement is admirable and a model for modern archives.


Brooklyn Historical Society, The Othmer Library. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Crossing Borders, Bridging Generations. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Dalbello, M. (2009). “Digital cultural heritage: concepts, projects, and emerging constructions of heritage,” Proceedings of the Libraries in the Digital Age (LIDA) Conference, 25–30 May, 2009.

Teach Archives. (n.d.). Retrieved from


Knowledge Hoarding in Organizations and Beyond

By jdixon

Knowledge hoarding could well be the greatest barrier to well-functioning information-sharing systems in organizations, as well as in broader society. Isabel Rechberg and Jawad Syed mention this phenomenon in passing in their article Ethical issues in knowledge management: conflict of knowledge ownership: “Insufficient or inefficient reward systems may lead individuals to believe they are better off hoarding rather than sharing what they know.” Knowledge hoarding costs organizations money and time in retraining employees and recompiling information that employees would prefer to keep rather than share with colleagues and employers.

Rechberg and Syed recommend that organizations institute a “moral contract” with employees to encourage them to “willingly process knowledge” – an appealing yet abstract concept. A great deal of ink has been spilled as corporations seek concrete ways to encourage employees to share what they know. The Harvard Business Review attributes the expert employee’s impulse to hang on to experience-based knowledge – what they call “deep knowledge” – to “financial incentives, personal ego, discontent or frustration with the company.” The employee mentality could be summed up as – “what’s in it for me?” Why should an employee bother sharing knowledge that they worked hard to collect, if it won’t gain them money or prestige, for the benefit of colleagues who did nothing to earn the information?

HBR recommends that companies create a “knowledge transfer program” that will foster mentoring and teamwork, so that knowledge will never be concentrated in any single person, and make employees feel appreciated so that they will want to pay back their employer and leave a legacy when they depart. In the corporate context, then, employers have a clear plan of attack against knowledge hoarding – dismantle hierarchical work structures that make employees think they must keep their knowledge close to keep themselves from becoming irrelevant or less valuable; encourage mentoring and group work and set aside time for education; and provide encouragement and incentives for employees who share.

As Kenneth Husted and Snejina Michailova noted in an article entitled Diagnosing and fighting knowledge-sharing hostility, the impulse to hoard knowledge is an unproductive one, but it is also completely human and natural: “The decision to hoard knowledge is destructive from an organizational point of view but, at the same time, it is often rational and well-justified from the perspective of the individual.” People do not trust others with their hard-earned knowledge and do not want people to “freeload,” or they worry about being judged harshly if their knowledge is deemed incorrect.

These concerns are not limited to the corporate context, and neither is knowledge hoarding. How does knowledge hoarding manifest in the non-corporate world, for example in academia? How can we combat it and foster an intellectually open culture? Is it even realistic to think that we could overcome such ingrained human behaviors?

The first example of non-corporate knowledge hoarding that comes to mind is that of scientific research – researchers spend years of their lives obtaining funding and resources for their research, compiling data, and interpreting it. Being the first to conduct and publish cutting-edge research can lead to prestige and further funding to conduct even more cutting-edge research. It is reasonable that researchers would prefer to hang on to their ideas and data so that others cannot cut in. The fear of “knowledge parasites” is real.

It is all well and good for researchers (and the institutions that sponsor them with money and resources) to reap the rewards of their own hard work, to the exclusion of those who did not meaningfully contribute to it. But this culture of hoarding ignores the fact that research does not occur in a vacuum. It inevitably builds on discoveries that came before it, and collaboration among scientists can speed progress and increase the quality of the knowledge that is put out in the world for society’s benefit. This is the root of the recent trend toward open research databases that encourage researchers to make their findings, and in some cases the underlying data, publicly available. Indeed, the National Institutes of Health – a major grantmaker – has instituted a public access policy. With the stated goal of advancing science and improving human health, NIH requires scientists to submit final peer-reviewed journal manuscripts that arise from NIH funds to an open access repository.

As one example, the New England Journal of Medicine recently published a report on one NIH-funded repository, ClinVar, which compiles research on genetic mutations. ClinVar is meant to foster a more complete, unified perspective on the current state of research in this area. According to the NEJM study, no single laboratory can have the complete picture of genetic mutation research – indeed, individual laboratories possess varying and inconsistent data and, as one researcher remarked, “if private companies or single labs followed their own interpretation of variants, they’re likely to get it wrong.” Accordingly, NEJM found, “[h]ealthy competition among isolated entities is no longer sufficient to drive our understanding of human variation, and patient care may be compromised when data are not shared.” The best possible solution is for researchers to contribute to and learn from open databases rather than keeping data to themselves. No researcher is an island.

The trend toward open access databases is not limited to the sciences and is moving forward across disciplines, including the humanities and social sciences – although the sometimes slow pace of growth in participation is frustrating to many advocates. Just like in the corporate context, individuals are frequently unwilling to open up the knowledge they have worked hard to compile, and it can take considerable convincing and incentives for them to do so.

Individuals will always hoard knowledge when they think it is in their interest to do so. It is human nature. However, when openness and knowledge sharing make a true difference to a common good – for the success of an organization or for the growth of scientific knowledge – people have developed strategies to change individuals’ incentives and to combat knowledge hoarding. These strategies shift the information culture from one of individualism and personal knowledge ownership to one of collaboration and mentorship. Efforts like open access databases should eventually gain traction and show their worth in growing the quality and quantity of knowledge in the world, in a way that benefits both the original knowledge creators and a broader population.



Rechberg, I. & Syed, J. (2013). “Ethical issues in knowledge management: conflict of knowledge ownership.” Journal of Knowledge Management, 17(6), pp. 628–647.

Leonard, D. (2014). How to prevent experts from hoarding knowledge. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from

Husted, K. & Michailova, S. (2002). Diagnosing and fighting knowledge-sharing hostility. Organizational Dynamics, 31(1), pp. 60-73.

Subbaraman, N. (2015, May 17). Want better science? Quit hoarding data, genetics researchers say. The Boston Globe.  Retrieved from

NIH Public Access Policy. (2014). Retrieved from


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