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David Robinson: Community Input in the Design of Algorithms

Eggers Hall, 220

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David Robinson will discuss his new book "Voices in the Code: A Story About People, Their Values, and the Algorithm They Made."

Algorithms – rules written into software – shape key moments in our lives: from who gets hired or admitted to a top public school, to who should go to jail or receive scarce public benefits. Such decisions are both technical and moral. Today, the logic of high stakes software is rarely open to scrutiny, and central moral questions are often left for the technical experts to answer. Policymakers and scholars are seeking better ways to share the moral decision-making within high stakes software — exploring ideas like public participation, transparency, forecasting, and algorithmic audits. But there are few real examples of those techniques in use.

"Voices in the Code" is the story of how one community built a life-and-death algorithm in a relatively inclusive, accountable way. Between 2004 and 2014 patients, surgeons, clinicians, data scientists, public officials and advocates collaborated and compromised to build a new transplant matching algorithm – a system to offer donated kidneys to particular patients from the U.S. national waiting list. Drawing on interviews with key stakeholders, unpublished archives, and multiple scholarly disciplines, I show how this new Kidney Allocation System emerged and evolved over time. Participants gradually built a shared understanding both of what was possible, and of what would be fair. The story ultimately illustrates both the promise and the limits of participation, transparency, forecasting and auditing of high stakes software. I'll conclude with some lessons for the broader struggle to build technology in a democratic and accountable way.

About the speaker:

DAVID G. ROBINSON is a visiting scholar at the Social Science Matrix at the University of California, Berkeley, and a member of the faculty at Apple University. From 2018 to 2021, he wrote his first book, "Voices in the Code," as a visiting scientist at Cornell’s AI Policy and Practice Project.


Social Science and Public Policy





Open to



MAX-Autonomous Systems Policy Institute


Lynnell Cabezas


Contact Lynnell Cabezas to request accommodations