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Workshop: Algorithmic Fairness through the Lens of Time

Performativity and Prospective Fairness.

Sebastian Zezulka · Konstantin Genin


Deploying an algorithmically informed policy is a significant intervention in the structure of society. As is increasingly acknowledged, predictive algorithms have performative effects: using them can shift the distribution of social outcomes away from the one on which the algorithms were trained. Algorithmic fairness research is usually motivated by the worry that these performative effects will exacerbate the structural inequalities that gave rise to the training data. However, standard retrospective fairness methodologies are ill-suited to predict these effects. They impose static fairness constraints that hold after the predictive algorithm is trained, but before it is deployed and, therefore, before performative effects have had a chance to kick in. However, satisfying static fairness criteria after training is not sufficient to avoid exacerbating inequality after deployment. Addressing the fundamental worry that motivates algorithmic fairness requires explicitly comparing the change in relevant structural inequalities before and after deployment. We propose a prospective methodology for estimating this post-deployment change from pre-deployment data and knowledge about the algorithmic policy. That requires a strategy for distinguishing between, and accounting for, different kinds of performative effects. In this paper, we focus on the algorithmic effect on the causally downstream outcome variable. Throughout, we are guided by an application from public administration: the use of algorithms to (1) predict who among the recently unemployed will stay unemployed for the long term and (2) targeting them with labor market programs. We illustrate our proposal by showing how to predict whether such policies will exacerbate gender inequalities in the labor market.

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