Governing Algorithms: The Politics of Data and Decision-Making

DigiGov Lecture Series @ University of Vienna

Algorithms are a ‘grey eminence’ in a growing number of social contexts: from communication to consumption to dating to public administration. With increasingly abundant digital data and computing power, algorithms play an ever more pervasive role in producing and certifying knowledge and in informing decision-making. Though they promise efficiency and objectivity, algorithms have also been associated with new forms of power, exclusion and manipulation.

The present lecture series gives an overview over key debates on algorithmic governance at the intersection of political science, legal theory and technology studies. At the centre stands the question of how society is being governed by digital technologies and how digital technologies are themselves (to be) governed. Part I of the lecture series introduces core concepts and theories; part II explores a set of empirical cases and applications. The lecture is organised by the cross-faculty research platform ‘Governance of Digital Practices’ and is targeted at a non-specialist multi-disciplinary audience with an interest in the politics of technology.

General information

The lecture series took place online via Zoom during the winter semester 2021/22. All lectures were held in English. For a more detailed lecture schedule, see below.

 Schedule for the winter semester 2021/22

4 October 2021

Introduction: Governance by and of Algorithms

with Lukas Schlögl (Department of Political Science, University of Vienna)

The session gives an overview of the lecture, the elearning platform and the requirements on students. It gives a broad introduction to the field and our disciplinary approach at the intersection of political science, legal theory and technology studies. The lecture broadly introduces the concepts of ‘governance’, ‘algorithms’ and ‘digital practices’.

11 October 2021

Basics of AI Algorithms

with Claudia Plant (Research Group Data Mining and Machine Learning, University of Vienna)

Artificial intelligence and Big Data are transforming the way we solve problems in research and practice. This lecture will give an introduction to the basics of how AI algorithms learn from data. The goal is to better understand their benefits and limitations.

18 October 2021

Algorithms prior to computers: The example of medicine

with Barbara Prainsack (Department of Political Science, University of Vienna) 
Gabriel Krestin (Radiology & Nuclear Medicine, Erasmus MC, Rotterdam)

Most of us think of computers when we hear the word “algorithm”. But algorithms are much older than the digital age. Taking the example of medicine, this session will examine the role of algorithms in clinical decision making. It will also take a deeper look into radiology to explore how algorithms have guided clinical practice throughout history.

25 October 2021

De-Personalized Health? Rethinking AI medicine, public participation and biomedical research

with Dana Mahr (ERC/SNF research group “Rethinking Public Participation and Science”, University of Geneva)

Online participatory health research projects widen the possibility for patients to freely describe “how they feel” independently of scientific and medical categories and vocabularies. Such illness narratives can now be processed automatically by analysing word frequency via AI. Yet, such analysis in clinical practice needs, as the presentation by Dana Mahr will show, more refined methods to preserve the singularity of individual patient’s experience, especially of those who are underrepresented both socially and epistemically within the health-care system

8 November 2021

The Law of Algorithms

with Nikolaus Forgó (Department of Innovation and Digitalisation in Law, University of Vienna)

This lecture will give an overview on the legal framework algorithms are developed and used in. We will, in particular, focus on the relevant European acts of secondary law in force, such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), dhe Directive on Copyright in th eDigital Single Market, and secondary law in the making such as the Digital Services Act (DSA) and the Digital Market Act (DMA).

15 November 2021

Algorithms and Discrimination

with Seliem El-Sayed (Department of Political Science, University of Vienna)

Algorithms are used in more and more domains of public and private life. In some domains their use is harmless; in others, their use leads to unjustified and unlawful discrimination. Using examples from the financial and banking sector as well as the criminal justice system this session will delve into the ways in which algorithms discriminate. It also considers what can be done to curtail discrimination by algorithms.

22 November 2021

Data Governance in Times of Crisis

with Peter Klimek (Section for Science of Complex Systems, Medical University of Vienna & Complexity Science Hub Vienna)
Katja Mayer (Department of Science and Technology Studies, University of Vienna)

The quantitative assessment of the effectiveness of non-pharmaceutical interventions to combat SARS-CoV-2 is critical to be better prepared for future crises. Since the effectiveness of such interventions results from the interplay of many factors (timing of implementation, accompanying measures, local and cultural context, ...), complex computational and simulation models are needed to isolate the effects of individual interventions and assess their impact on infection incidence. We discuss the current state of knowledge on assessing the effectiveness of individual pandemic response measures, their limitations, and the extent to which this knowledge has been incorporated into decision-making processes.

29 November 2021

Digital Technologies and Decision Support in the Field of Medical Policy

with Ulrike Felt (Department of Science and Technology Studies, University of Vienna)

Making decisions in complex and difficult situations is a key challenge in clinical environments and has led to the gradual introduction of AI (artificial intelligence)-driven decision support systems. In this lecture we will reflect how this potentially transforms the interactions between different medical professionals and patients, how conditions of trustworthiness and transparency can be achieved and what this means in terms of the distribution of responsibility.

6 December 2021

Big Datafication and the Governance of Knowledge Production

with Paul Dunshirn (Department of Political Science, University of Vienna)
Rasmus Kvaal Wardemann (Department of Science and Technology Studies, University of Vienna)

Recent developments in the management of large-scale scientific data have been accompanied by challenges relating to environmental sustainability, distribution of resources, and the nature of knowledge work. In this lecture we explore how these challenges relate to big datafication and emerging trends in knowledge governance.

13 December 2021

Digital Technologies and Labour Market Policy: the AMS Algorithm

with Florian Cech (Centre for Informatics & Society, Technical University Vienna)
& Astrid Mager (Institute of Technology Assessment, Austrian Academy of Sciences)
Katja Mayer (Department of Science and Technology Studies, University of Vienna)

Algorithmic systems increasingly intrude into and change public sectors including public employment. The Public Employment Service Austria, for example, tries to roll out a semi-automated decision-making system, the so-called "AMS Algorithm", that has been controversially discussed in the public domain. In this session, we discuss the inherent politics of the AMS algorithm. Based on an in-depth analysis of relevant technical documentation and policy documents, we investigate crucial conceptual, technical, and social implications of the system. This examination shows how the design of the algorithm is influenced by technical affordances, but also by social values, norms, and goals. We will further discuss tensions, challenges, and possible biases that the system entails calling into question the objectivity and neutrality of data claims and of high hopes pinned on evidence-based decision-making.

10 January 2022

Digital diplomacy and the future of multilateral environmental negotiations

with Alice Vadrot (Department of Political Science, University of Vienna)

This lecture introduces students to the key features of digital diplomacy, focusing on the opportunities and challenges of moving multilateral environmental negotiations online. The last decade has seen a significant increase of concepts that capture the effects of information and communication technologies (ICTs) on diplomacy. Digital diplomacy, e-diplomacy, twiplomacy, or hashtag diplomacy all indicate that "the principal means by which states communicate with each other, enabling them to have regular and complex relations" have changed (Berridge and Lloyd, 2012: 98). While diplomacy can and does indeed adjust to digitalization, such adaption is especially difficult in a multilateral context, where at least three parties negotiate simultaneously over one or more issues based on the principle of consensus. Thus, during COVID-19, states found themselves confronted with a lack of reliable and legitimate digital infrastructures and tools to continue multilateral agreement-making online. Many negotiations and so-called mega-events, including COP 26 of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), had to be postponed or turned into informal online dialogue without legal accountability. What will be the future of multilateral environmental negotiations and will digital diplomacy become the new normal?

24 January 2022

Conclusion: The Political and Social Relevance of Algorithms

with Lukas Schlögl (Department of Political Science, University of Vienna)

This session draws together and recapitulates key concepts, findings and debates. It sketches emerging trends, open questions and future areas of research. The session provides guidelines for exam preparation.