Education, Stock Trading, Cities & Traffic
In this chapter we collect and describe further examples of procedures and processes that use automated decision-making, that can impact on aspects of social participation and that are present in different parts of society.
Since 2017 an Intelligent Zoning Engine (IZE) has been employed by the education authority in the Berlin District of Tempelhof-Schöneberg. According to the manufacturer, discussions are underway to extend the use of this tool to other districts. The IZE allows for the delineation of school catchment areas based on algorithmic optimization i.e. depending on their home address first-year pupils are allocated to specific schools. Together with the details of the maximum number of pupils a school can take and the home addresses of prospective pupils, the IZE also takes into account demographic data in the smallest possible statistical units (on the level of blocks of houses). The manufacturer of the IZE claims that the tool saves a lot of time for the school administrators. School catchment areas are automatically determined by criteria set by the users, such as the shortest routes to school. The company says that “further dimensions for optimization are applicable (socio-economic composition etc.)” This means that the software could potentially be used to promote, or reduce, segregation, e.g. according to origin or income. [LINK]
The admission procedure for medicine will change in the summer term 2020. Besides the school leaver’s grade average (Abitur), universities will have to devise another independent selection criterion. This could be the TMS (admissions test for medical degree courses) – which was developed at the request of the Standing Conference of the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs – and consists of training in a medical profession or an aptitude test by the respective university. In the course of this, the software of the Trust for Admission to Higher Education (Stiftung für Hochschulzulassung – ZVS) will be readjusted. Thus, from 2020, factors other than the Abitur grade are going to be taken into account and weighted in the allocation of university places.
In stock trading, so-called “high frequency trading“ (HFT) has been in operation for about ten years. Computers trade bonds within milli- or microseconds, managed completely autonomously by software: Basically, the profit is made by exploiting minimal share price fluctuations through rapid buying and selling. At least one short term stock market crash, the so called Flash Crash 2010, has been attributed to the operation of HFT. This event clearly shows how such automated trading systems can severely damage national economies and directly affect various aspects of partici-pation.
In Germany, the High Frequency Trading Act which was introduced in 2013 contains, among other aspects, provisions for “systems and risk controls” and a “flagging obligation”. The stipulations on HFT could serve as reference points for potential approaches to regulation in other branches and sectors. [LINK]
Concepts for Smart Cities have been discussed for some time (for rural areas, the equivalent is the “Smart Country”). In essence, infrastructure data (electricity, water, traffic etc.) is gathered and additional data (air quality, noise etc.) is measured by sensors. This data is then used to in-terconnect infrastructure (“Internet of Things“). At the same time, the movements and behavior of individual people are recorded through their mobile devices and also considered in the evaluation. This enables new services (for example: digitally controlled parking zones, personalized ad-vertisements in public spaces) to be offered. In addition, it allows city administrators to partially automate administrative actions and to manage resources more efficiently.
Usually, democratic opportunities for participation in the sense of Open Government are not part of Smart City concepts. Critics complain that these concepts, to whose development larger tech companies often contribute, are really about setting up surveillance infrastructure as well as new forms of marketing in public spaces. This is countered by the example of the Smart City concept in Barcelona which was developed in cooperation with the inhabitants and is intended to primarily serve their needs. [LINK]
In Germany, traffic lights have directed the flow of traffic for about a century. These fairly simple automats – that in some places today are interconnected by traffic control centers – can mainly be found in urban areas where they manage the relationship between pedestrians and mo-torized and non-motorized vehicles. In most cases, this implements a car-focused traffic policy that affects people’s health (air pollution, accidents) and the environment.
Ever since the number of smartphones boomed after 2007, navigation devices or apps have appeared in almost every vehicle. They register the location of a vehicle based on satellite data (GPS, Galileo, Glonass) and calculate the best and fastest route to the desired destination. Whether this affects residential or nature conservation areas is not part of the consideration.
Engine Control (Dieselgate)
In 2015 it became known that German car manufacturers, in particular Volkswagen AG, had ordered the engine control of some types of diesel powered vehicles to be programmed in such a way that the engine automatically ran differently in test situations in order to minimize exhaust emissions. The control system incorporated in these vehicles implemented the “decision” to take part in this fraud. This affects, for example, the air quality in cities and thus the health, mainly of older people and children.
The media attention surrounding self-driving cars has declined a little in recent times as it will still take a while before this vision of the future becomes a reality. Nevertheless, an Ethics Commission on Automated Driving set up by the Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure met between 2016 and 2017. In its final report, the commission presented 20 “ethical rules” related to self-driving cars. Among them, they state that decisions of “life against life” (unavoidable accident situations) cannot be “unequivocally ethically programmed”. Any distinction between individuals based on personal features (age, gender, physical or mental constitution) is impermissible. In an amendment to the Road Traffic Act (StVO), the foundation was laid for the introduction of autonomous driving. However, the changes mainly dealt with liability issues and not with the above mentioned ethical issues that the Ethics Commission raised. It remains doubtful whether these issues can be resolved by regulation at all, and it also remains an open question as to how autonomous driving can be realized in principle when it interferes with fundamental rights.