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Can the Hidden Power of Algorithms be Harnessed for Good?


Automation Fuels Erroneous Fines at Chicago Stoplights

In an analysis of 4 million traffic light violations occurring since 2007, the Chicago Tribune found evidence that thousands of drivers were erroneously fined. The charges stemmed from automated cameras:

Cameras that for years generated just a few tickets daily suddenly caught dozens of drivers a day. One camera near the United Center rocketed from generating one ticket per day to 56 per day for a two-week period last summer before mysteriously dropping back to normal…
Many of the spikes were marked by periods immediately before or after when no tickets were issued—downtimes suggesting human intervention that should have been documented. City officials said they cannot explain the absence of such records.

Fail-safes, such as auditing of the videos and documenting changes to the system, were ineffectual or overlooked. Whatever the problem, human or technical, Chicago’s adoption of an automated system enabled minor issues to have major effects: At least 13,000 questionable $100 tickets were issued, and a vast majority of such tickets were not appealed.

This is an example of how technology can supercharge the impact of misguided decisions or incomplete oversight. Luckily, in this case, transparency led to a solution. Because infraction were records available to the press, the harms came to light. Unfortunately, for many technologies, records are in short supply.

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