Defining Equity in Algorithmic Change

Iconic yellow public school buses pass through streets all across the United States every day, performing a complex choreography of crisscrossing routes and school handoffs. It turns out that school districts have only very recently acquired the computational heft to optimally design bus traffic. Algorithms and big data have now made it possible to redo public school busing in ways that cut costs, improve the environment, and better serve students, teachers, and parents. Taking advantage of these tools, the Boston public school system proposed an overhaul of bus routes and school schedules for the 2018 to 2019 school year with the possibility of saving up to $15 million per year. What happened next should teach public officials everywhere—especially in regulatory agencies—something about how algorithmically derived policy can go sideways even when it promises greater efficiency and equity. Algorithms are useful in solving any complex regulatory problem with a…

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