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5 February 2019updated 09 Sep 2021 4:05pm

I taught myself to code – MPs should too

Westminster needs a legislative and political approach able to pre-empt technological change.

By Tara O'Reilly

“Why won’t 38 Degrees stop sending me emails?” Let’s be honest: for most of us who manage an email inbox in Westminster, the sudden onslaught of hundreds of emails from constituents on issues such as bees or holding a second referendum (especially when the emails come without a constituent’s address) is annoying. If these constituents really cared about bees, why didn’t they send an engraved block of beeswax declaring their concern for the bee world?

It’s difficult prioritising and responding to messages from constituents sent in bulk using an online app. While tools like 38 Degrees shorten the gap between politicians the public, they can distort a politician’s understanding of what constituents care about, and make it harder for MPs and their staff to focus on more pressing needs such as urgent casework. But as I sit in Westminster as both a political staffer and a programmer – my question now is “why aren’t any of us building tools to make things like responding to constituents easier?”

Oh yeah, that’s right, we can’t code.

Coding isn’t a mythical hobby reserved for sweaty boys in hoodies. I taught myself the basics using books, free classes and websites. If we understood how programming works, we could at the very least pay to build tools that make our lives as staffers, journalists, and politicians, a whole lot easier. If the Labour Party wants to get serious about tackling anti-Semitism, it could build a tool that scraped tweets and public posts by members and search for specific anti-Semitic words and phrases. Politically ambitious, perhaps, but technologically? Not at all.

Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently put algorithm bias firmly on the political agenda in the US, when she asserted that “algorithms are still pegged to basic human assumptions. They’re just automated.”

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The same can’t be said for the UK. According to Hansard, “algorithm bias” has been mentioned only twice in the House of Commons, in both instances by Liberal Democrat MP Jo Swinson. In January 2018, as part of a debate on ethics and artificial intelligence (AI), Swinson asked what regulations were being considered “to ensure that AI systems are designed in a way that is transparent, so that somebody can be held accountable, and how AI bias can be counteracted.”

Given all the hype over driverless cars and robots taking our jobs, you’d think Westminster would spend more time discussing the code at the basis of these tectonic changes. But few parliamentarians understand how code works – which means issues such as algorithm bias and the morality of AI are rarely discussed.  

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Long gone are the days when “data” conjured the image of an Excel spreadsheet. Now, it’s a Mark Zuckerberg vortex, sucking and scooping up every word, photo and emotion like a trail of personalised breadcrumbs. As the Cambridge Analytica scandal revealed, data in the wrong hands can threaten democracy and our trust in technology. The UK’s artificial intelligence select committee found in 2018 that “The manipulation of data in particular will be a key area for public understanding and discussion in the coming months and years.”

Unlike the sham of the 2018 Senate hearing in which US senators asked Mark Zuckerberg if he would support legislation that would regulate Facebook, we in Westminster need to invest in our knowledge and understanding of technology so that when the time comes we can hold people like Zuckerberg to account. In the same way those of us on the left want to scrutinise the fat cats for paying their taxes, we need to advocate loudly for policies that obligate companies like Facebook to protect our civil liberties.

As Jamie Susskind wrote in his recent book Future Politics, “social engineering and software engineering will become increasingly hard to distinguish”. Westminster needs a legislative and political approach able to pre-empt technological change. If we spend more time outside of the Westminster bubble learning about the people creating the algorithms of the future and the patterns and tools they’re working with, we’d have a stronger chance at ensuring technology works in the common good.

Tara O’Reilly is a parliamentary aide for the Labour Tribune MPs group.