It is because I am so familiar with how much work goes into making a decision support algorithm that I was so moved by Ian Bogost’s article. In this piece he points out that though we live today in the “era of the algorithm,” in which we see the marvels of computer programs to find us optimal solutions on everything from the next product we’ll buy on Amazon, to the best route to our destination via Mapquest, the truth is that the algorithms are not really “doing this” for us without help. Algorithms are “caricatures,” Bogost points out—they are a simplification of a huge amount of work that is done in the background to make them possible. For instance, with Mapquest, it seems that some computer is just reading a map for us and telling us the best route to take. But in reality, the algorithms that power map programs are the results of millions of hours of people power: people driving around the country with special cars that map the whole terrain, large servers and technicians working those computers to crunch data, graphic and interface designers optimizing the process for engaging the software, and more. The user’s experience of putting in an address and having the computer spit-out a response is just the fruit of an otherwise extremely intensive community process—and without this community work, the algorithm simply would not be as effective.
That is why at CDR we always stress the community part of our work. We engage communities to collect data, reflect on data, and then act on that data. Certainly our software is necessary to make that happen, but most important is the organization of communities towards the work, and the algorithms are just the final product of concerted action in the direction of community improvement.