Do Citizens Have A Right To See The Algorithms Used By Publicly-Funded Software?

Gkyn Moody:

In 2009, the Spanish government brought in a law requiring electricity bill subsidies for some five million poor households in the country. The so-called Bono Social de Electricidad, or BOSCO, was not popular with energy companies, which fought against it in the courts. Following a 2016 ruling, the Spanish authorities introduced new, more restrictive regulations for BOSCO, and potential beneficiaries had to re-register by 31 December 2018. In the end, around 1.5 million households were approved, almost a million fewer than the 2.4 million who had benefited from the previous scheme, and a long way from the estimated 4.5 million who fulfilled the criteria to receive the bonus.

The process of applying for the subsidy was complicated, so a non-profit organization monitoring public authorities, Civio, worked with the National Commission on Markets and Competition to produce an easy-to-use Web page that allowed people to check their eligibility for BOSCO. Because of discrepancies between what the Civio service predicted, and what the Spanish government actually decided, Civio asked to see the source code for the algorithm that was being used to determine eligibility. The idea was to find out how the official algorithm worked so that the Web site could be tweaked to give the same results. As Civio wrote in a blog post, that didn’t go so well: