[Summary: following the Bellagio Center thematic month on AI last year, I was asked to write up some brief notes on where data standards fit into contemporary debates on AI governance. The below article has just been published in the Rockefeller ‘notebook’ AI+1: Shaping our Integrated Future*]
Modern AI was hailed as bringing about ‘the end of theory’. To generate insight and action no longer would we need to structure the questions we ask of data. Rather, with enough data, and smart enough algorithms, patterns would emerge. In this world trained AI models would give the ‘right’ outcomes, even if we didn’t understand how they did this.
Today this theory-free approach to AI is under attack. Scholars have called out the ‘bias in, bias out’ problem of machine-learning systems, showing that biased datasets create biased models — and, by extension, biased predictions. That’s why policy makers now demand that if AI systems are used to make public decisions, their models need to be ‘explainable’, offering justifications for the predictions they make.
Yet, a deeper problem is rarely addressed. It is not just the selection of training data, or the design of algorithms, that embeds bias and fails to represent the world we want to live in. The underlying data structures and infrastructures on which AI is founded were rarely built with AI uses in mind, and the data standards — or lack thereof — used by those datasets place hard limits on what AI can deliver.
From form fields for gender that only offer a binary choice, to disagreements over whether or not a company’s registration number should be a required field when applying for a government contract, data standards define the information that will be available to machine-learning systems. They set in stone hidden assumptions and taken-for-granted categories that make possible certain conclusions, while ruling others out, before the algorithm even runs. Data standards tell you what to record, and how to represent it. They embody particular world views, and shape the data that shapes decisions.
For corporations planning to use machine-learning models with their own data, creating a new data field or adapting available data to feed the model may be relatively easy. But for the public good uses of AI, which frequently draw on data from many independent agencies, individuals or sectors, syncing data structures is a challenging task.
Opening up AI infrastructure
However, there is hope. A number of open data standards projects have launched since 2010.
They include the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) — which works with international aid donors to encourage them to publish project information in a common structure — and HXL, the Humanitarian eXchange Language, which offers a lightweight approach to structure spreadsheets with ‘Who, What, Where’ information from different agencies engaged in disaster response activities.
When these standards work well, they allow a broad community to share data that represents their own reality, and make data interoperable with that from others. But for this to happen, standards must be designed with broad participation so that they avoid design choices that embed problematic cultural assumptions, create unequal power dynamics, or strike the wrong balance between comprehensive representation of the world and simple data preparation. Without the right balance certain populations may drop out of the data sharing process altogether.
To use AI for the public good, we need to focus on the data substrata on which AI systems are built. This requires a primary focus on data standards, and far more inclusive standards development processes. Even if machine learning allows us to ask questions of data in new ways, we cannot shirk our responsibility to consciously design data infrastructures that make possible meaningful and socially just answers.
*I’ve only got print copies of the publication right now: happy to share locally in Stroud, and will update with a link to digital versions when available. Thanks to Dor Glick at Rockefeller for the invite and brief for this piece, and to Carolyn Whelan for editing.