Exclusive: Statistics minister says new charter on algorithms – used from traffic lights to police decision-making – an ‘important part of building public trust’

New Zealand police officers
Police operations are among the many uses for algorithms, New Zealand statistics minister James Shaw says, while hailing the government’s new charter on public agency standards for the technology. Photograph: Sanka Vidanagama/AFP via Getty Images

New Zealand’s government says it is the first in the world to produce a set of standards for how public agencies should use the algorithms that increasingly drive decision-making by officials about every area of public life.

The increasing application of algorithms by governments around the world – particularly when they are deployed to profile or generate decisions about citizens by law enforcement, immigration, welfare and health agencies – has proved controversial in recent years. Critics claim that decision-making driven by lines of code can be inaccurate and discriminatory and that their use is often kept secret from the public.

New Zealand is no exception: a 2019 review of algorithm use in the public sector had found “huge variability as to the extent of the use and how they were being used”, said James Shaw, the statistics minister and co-leader of the left-leaning Green party.