Monday, November 11, 2019

Reflections on Discrimination by Data-based Systems

A student wrote to me to ask me to interview me about discrimination in text mining and classification systems. He is working on his bachelor thesis, and plans to concentrate on gender discrimination. I wrote him back with an informal entry into the topic, and posted it here, since it may be of more general interest.

Dear Student,

Discrimination in IR, classification, or text mining systems is caused by the mismatch between what is assumed to be represented by data and what is helpful, healthy and fair for people and society.

Why do we have this mismatch and why is it so hard to fix?

Data is never a perfect snapshot of a person or a person's life. There is no single "correct" interpretation inherent in data. Worse, data creates its own reality. Let's break it down.

Data keeps us stuck in the past. Data-based systems make the assumption that predictions made for use in the future, can be meaningfully based on what has happened in the past. With physical science, we don't mind being stuck in the past. A ballistic trajectory or a chemical reaction can indeed be predicted by historical data. With data science, when we build systems based on data collected from people, shaking off the past is a problem. Past discrimination perpetuates itself, since it gets built into predictions for the future. Skew in how datapoints are collected also gets built into predictions. Those predictions in turn get encoded into the data and the cycle continues.

In short, the expression "it's not rocket science" takes on a whole new interpretation. Data science really is not rocket science, and we should stop expecting it to resemble physical science in its predictive power.

Inequity is exacerbated by information echo chambers. In information environments, we have what is known as rich gets richer effects, i.e., videos with many views gain more views. It means that small initial tendencies are reinforced. Again, the data creates its own reality. There is a difference between data collected in online environments and data collected via a formal poll.

Other important issues:

"Proxy" discrimination: for example, when families move they tend to follow the employment opportunities of the father and not the mother. The trend can be related to the father often earning more because he tends to be just a bit older (more work experience) and also tends to have spent less time on pregnancy and kid care. This means that the mother's CV will be full of non-progressive job changes (i.e., gaps or changes that didn't represent career advancement), and gets down ranked by a job candidate ranking function. The job ranking function generalizes across the board over non-progressive CVs, and does not differentiate between the reasons that the person was not getting promoted. In this case, this non-progressiveness is a proxy for gender, and down-ranking candidates with non-progressive CVs leads to reinforcing gender inequity. Proxy discrimination means that it is not possible to address discrimination by looking at explicit information; implicit information also matters.

Binary gender: When you design a database (or database schema) you need to declare the variable type in advance, and you also want to make database interoperable with other databases. Gender is represented as a binary variable. The notion that gender is binary gets propagated through systems regardless of the ways that people actually map well to two gender classes. I notice a tendency among researchers to assume that gender is some how a super-important variable contributing to their predictions just because it seems easy to collect and encode. We give importance to the data we have, and forget about other, perhaps more relevant data, that are not in our database.

Everyone's impacted: We tend to focus on women when we talk about gender inequity. This is because of the examples of gender inequity that threaten life and limb tend to involve women, such as gender gaps in medical research. Clearly action needs to be taken. However, it is important to remember that everyone is impacted by gender inequity. When a lopsided team designs a product, we should not be surprised when the product itself is also lopsided. As men get more involved in caretaking roles in society, they struggle against pressure to become "Supermom", i.e., fulfill all the stereotypical male roles, and at the same time excel at the female roles. We should be careful while we are fixing one problem, not to fully ignore, or even create, another.

I have put a copy of the book Weapons of Math Destruction in my mailbox for you. You might have read it already, but if not, it is essential reading for your thesis.

From the recommender system community in which I work, check out:

Michael D. Ekstrand, Mucun Tian, Mohammed R. Imran Kazi, Hoda Mehrpouyan, and Daniel Kluver. 2018. Exploring author gender in book rating and recommendation. In Proceedings of the 12th ACM Conference on Recommender Systems (RecSys '18). ACM, New York, NY, USA, 242-250.

and also our own recent work, that has made be question the importance of gender for recommendation. 

Christopher Strucks, Manel Slokom, and Martha Larson, BlurM(or)e: Revisiting Gender Obfuscation in the User-Item Matrix. In Proceedings of the Workshop on Recommendation in Multistakeholder Environments (RMSE) Workshop at RecSys 2019.

Hope that these comments help with your thesis.

Best regards,

P. S. As I was about to hit the send button Sarah T. Roberts posted a thread on Twitter. I suggest that you read that, too.