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Participatory Problem Formulation for Fairer Machine Learning Through Community Based System Dynamics

by   Donald Martin Jr., et al.

Recent research on algorithmic fairness has highlighted that the problem formulation phase of ML system development can be a key source of bias that has significant downstream impacts on ML system fairness outcomes. However, very little attention has been paid to methods for improving the fairness efficacy of this critical phase of ML system development. Current practice neither accounts for the dynamic complexity of high-stakes domains nor incorporates the perspectives of vulnerable stakeholders. In this paper we introduce community based system dynamics (CBSD) as an approach to enable the participation of typically excluded stakeholders in the problem formulation phase of the ML system development process and facilitate the deep problem understanding required to mitigate bias during this crucial stage.


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1 Introduction

Problem formulation is a crucial first step in any machine learning (ML) based interventions that have the potential of impacting the real lives of people; a step that involves determining the strategic goals driving the interventions and translating those strategic goals into tractable machine learning problems (Barocas et al., 2017; Passi and Barocas, 2019). The decisions made during this step can have profound impact in shaping the core aspects of those interventions, including how they impact different communities in society. Recent studies have demonstrated many instances where ML-aided interventions in high-stakes domains such as health-care risk-assessment (Obermeyer et al., 2019), criminal justice (Chouldechova, 2017) and online content moderation (Sap et al., 2019) resulted in unintended unfair outcomes that further disadvantaged already marginalized communities.

Researchers have pointed out two major pitfalls in the problem formulation step that contributes to such undesirable outcomes. First, the problem formulation step necessitates developing a model of the problem domain that accommodates the constraints of leveraging existing ML tools (often the pre-chosen intervention method), most of which operate on (i.e., classifies or regresses over) data that are static snap-shots of the problem domain, and consequently often ignores the non-linear and dynamically complex nature of society that involves feedback loops and time-delays between actions and impacts

(Ensign et al., 2017; Liu et al., 2018). Second, the stakeholders that are involved in problem formulation — e.g., product managers, business analysts, computer scientists, ML practitioners — often lack the lived experiences required to comprehensively approximate and account for the various peripheral stakeholders their interventions will impact, especially the communities that are the most vulnerable to unfair outcomes (Eubanks, 2018; Campolo et al., 2017).

For instance, let us consider the recent study (Obermeyer et al., 2019) which discovered that a prediction algorithm broadly used by health-care risk-assessment tools exhibited racial bias against African-Americans. The strategic goal of those tools was to improve the care of patients with complex health needs while reducing overall costs, by targeting high-risk patients (i.e., those with complex health needs) with special programs and resources. The goal itself implies an interventionist (Ben-Menahem, 2018) approach that relies on the causal inference that special programs for high-risk patients will lead to or cause lower overall, system-wide healthcare costs. During the problem formulation phase, this strategic goal was reduced to identifying the patients who had the highest health care costs; essentially using costs/spending as a proxy for needs. This reduction relied on the additional human causal inference that patients — regardless of population or background — with more complex health needs would have spent more on health care in the past and that no other factors were causally relevant to their health care spending. However, this inference proved incorrect as it failed to consider a multitude of confounding factors and the dynamically complex ways they impact health care spending. Specifically, the historic disparities in health care access (among other things) that African American individuals face in the US healthcare system means that they end up spending less on health care. Consequently, the health risk-assessment algorithm tended to mistakenly infer African American individuals to not be high-risk patients, regardless of the complexity of their illnesses, further denying them access to special programs and resources.

One of the core mistakes made in the above scenario is in the problem formulation step itself — using health-care costs (spending) as a proxy variable for health-care need. The causal theories that guided this process emerge from an opaque and iterative process among key stakeholders (e.g. product managers, executives, business analysts) that we collectively refer to as ”causal reasoners” (Pearl and Mackenzie, 2018). Psychological research has shown that human causal inference is based on a priori intuitive theories about the causal structure of the problem to be intervened on (Tenenbaum and Griffiths, 2003; Pearl and Mackenzie, 2018). These causal theories are the result of the cumulative lived experiences of the individual causal reasoner and reflect views of reality filtered through their world views and biases. If the problem formulation step had facilitated the equitable participation of African American community members who have lived experience within the US healthcare system, it is likely this undesired outcome could have been averted.

While researchers have recognized the importance of problem formulation in ensuring fair and ethical machine learning interventions in society, the process that guides this step still remains ad-hoc, informal, and fueled by intuition (Barocas and Selbst, 2016; Barocas et al., 2017). Such reliance on the implicit causal theories of causal reasoners, who may lack the lived experiences required to comprehensively approximate the causal model of the problem domain upon which to base inferences, will continue to result in undesirable outcomes. Hence, the problem formulation step, especially in high-stakes situations, should have at its core a formal approach to developing causal models of the socio-technical problem domains being intervened upon. Such an approach should incorporate two key attributes: (1) ability to contend with the delayed impacts and feedback loops that characterize the dynamically complex nature of high-stakes contexts, and (2) optimized for making causal inferences explicit and for iterative learning of causal structures in partnership with peripheral stakeholders including policy makers and social groups most vulnerable to unfair outcomes.

2 Community Based System Dynamics

In this paper we introduce Community Based System Dynamics (CBSD) as an approach to engage multiple and diverse stakeholder groups in problem formulation to design fairer ML-based interventions. CBSD is a participatory method for involving communities in the process of developing a shared understanding of complex systems from the feedback perspective. It relies on visual tools and simulation to support groups in the co-development of explicit and transparent causal theories (Hovmand, 2014a). CBSD’s explicit goal to build capacity among stakeholders to derive deeper system insights together through their participation sets it apart from other approaches where stakeholders are viewed as informants. It has been used to engage and center the perspectives of marginalized and vulnerable communities in the development of more effective interventions in ecology, public health, and social work (Stave and Kopainsky, 2015; Trani et al., 2016; Escobedo et al., 2019).

Unlike other causal modeling techniques such as Structural Causal Models (SCMs) and Causal Bayesian Networks (CBNs) that have been recently proposed to model causality in ML problem formulation

(Madras et al., 2019; Chiappa and Isaac, 2018), CBSD is founded upon a system dynamics (SD) (Hovmand, 2014a) approach, which takes a characteristically feedback approach to modeling dynamically complex problems (Sterman, 2010; Richardson, 2011). In addition, while CBNs and SCMs are independent causal modeling tools, combining causal modeling tools with formal practices for collaborative and iterative causal modeling is inherent to both SD and CBSD.

Figure 1: Examples of system dynamics causal loop diagrams and stock and flow diagrams.

2.1 Causal Modeling using System Dynamics

System Dynamics (SD) is defined as the process of using both informal maps/diagrams and formal models with computer simulation to uncover and understand the dynamics of complex problems from a feedback perspective (Richardson, 2011). It is this emphasis on feedback — reinforcing and balancing processes that unfold over time — that distinguishes SD from other causal modeling approaches, and makes it apt for the dynamically complex nature of high-stakes problems at the center of risk-prediction systems. To uncover and understand feedback processes, SD has developed a series of tools that vary in degree of formalism and are designed to provide insight into different aspects of the complex problems they model. Many of these tools are graphical in nature, requiring modelers to make their causal theories explicit, thereby fostering transparency (Lane, 2008).

One of the most commonly used visual tools in SD is the causal loop diagram (CLD). The main purpose of the CLD is to show the feedback processes in a system (understood as the set of posited causal structures related to the phenomenon of interest) using a directed graph. CLDs are often used to quickly elicit hypothesized causal relations between variables in a problem space and/or communicate the main feedback loops in a more detailed computer simulation model.

An example of a CLD is shown in Figure 1a, which offers a simplified representation of a credit score based lending system. Such systems resemble the health-risk system described earlier in that they utilize risk prediction algorithms to intervene on high-stakes problem domains with vulnerable stakeholders. The arrows in CLDs represent hypothesized causal links between variables, with the arrowheads and polarity indicating the direction and the nature of influence. Positive polarity represents relationships where an increase (decrease) in one variable triggers an increase (decrease) in the other, all else equal. Negative polarity is used to depict relationships where an increase (decrease) in one variable triggers a decrease (increase) in the other, all else equal. In the example in Figure 1a, the relationship between Payments Made and Average Credit Score is assumed to be of positive polarity since making payments towards debt generally builds credit, ceteris paribus, whereas the link between Loan Defaults and Average Credit Score is negative, since defaulting generally results in score reductions. Any increase (decrease) in the average credit score of a group leads to a corresponding increase (decrease) in the number of loans received by that group, which in-turn increases (decreases) its borrower pool.

A more formal treatment of the causal structures, including the concept of delays and their impact on the system is offered by stock and flow diagrams, perhaps the most commonly used tool in system dynamics. In addition to representing relationships between variables and feedback loops, stock and flow diagrams require explicit definitions of variables that vary, and the precise ways that they accumulate or are depleted over time. In these diagrams, variables that accumulate are called stocks and are drawn as rectangles, and the processes that add to or drain them are called flows (inflows and outflows) and are depicted as double-lined/thick arrows or “pipes” with valves. The “clouds” are the sources and sinks of the flows, and are assumed to have infinite capacity over the time horizon of the model. These clouds show the model’s assumed boundary — once information or material passes through the flows into a cloud, it ceases to impact the system.

Figure 1b shows a stock and flow representation of the lending system represented in the CLD (Figure 1a), in which Borrowers and Average Credit Score of the population are now represented as stocks, and are thus assumed to accumulate value over time. The number of borrowers (units = people) accumulates the inflow of people receiving loans per year and is depleted by the outflows of people paying off the loan completely and defaulting on loans per year. In this context the cloud before receiving loans indicates that there is an endless source of individuals who could apply for loans. In turn, those leaving the system, by defaulting or paying off, are assumed to not affect the system in any meaningful way, and are thus represented as clouds at the ends of the outflows.

Stock and flow diagrams serve a qualitative purpose, but they are also the critical bridge to simulation and the quantitative aspect of SD. Visualizing behavior over time is extremely difficult with static diagrams. Simulation enables the visualization and validation of dynamic hypotheses of causal structures upon which interventions are ultimately based. Additionally, simulation is a critical step for gaining a deep understanding of dynamic causal structures and enables ”en silico” intervention experimentation.

2.2 Participatory Modeling

SD has a rich history of participatory modeling that involves stakeholders in the model building process to foster collaboration and learning (Király and Miskolczi, 2019). Community based system dynamics (Hovmand, 2014a) is a particular SD practice approach that engages stakeholders who are embedded in the system of interest to conceptualize the problem, identify the related issues and prioritize interventions based on model supported insights. More than just involving participants in the modeling process to elicit information, CBSD has the explicit goal of building capabilities within communities to use SD on their own, distinguishing it from other participatory approaches in SD. Building capabilities enables stakeholders to more accurately represent their causal theories in the models, which is especially critical when the stakeholders are from marginalized communities that are not represented in the modeling process. In this view, individual and community perspectives on the structures that underlie everyday experiences are valued as valid and necessary sources of data, and community perspectives on the analysis and interpretation of models is essential for realizing the value of the approach.

Best practices for engaging stakeholders in the process of reflecting problem causal structure using CLDs and stock and flow diagrams and refining simulation models are documented (Hovmand, 2014a, b). These activities can be adapted for diverse contexts and support the development of capabilities for collaborative causal inference development. Overall, CBSD has been shown to be useful in a broad range of problem domains such as maternal and child health (Munar et al., 2015), identifying food system vulnerabilities (Stave and Kopainsky, 2015), mental health interventions (Trani et al., 2016) and alcohol abuse (Apostolopoulos et al., 2018), to name a few. In the domain of ML (un)fairness, the use of CBSD can help center the voices and lived experiences of those marginalized communities that are potentially impacted by ML-based products. If the goal is to design fairer ML-based tools and products that do not harm peripheral stakeholders, it is imperative to not only model the long-term dynamics created by those products, but to also incorporate the perspectives of those stakeholders in defining what fairness means in a particular domain or context.

3 Discussion and Conclusion

In this paper we highlight the causal inferences of key stakeholders as the central point of risk in the currently adhoc and informal problem formulation process. When the process that generates those causal inferences is opaque and insular real harms can result. We introduced CBSD as a mature candidate to foster the formalization of the problem formulation process in a manner that considers the dynamically complex nature of high-stakes contexts and enables the diversification of the sources of causal theories upon which human causal inferences are ultimately based. A key advantage of an SD-based approach is that it draws heavily on visual diagramming conventions which emphasize transparency and facilitate the engagement of diverse stakeholders to add, revise and critique causal theories. A long lineage of participatory approaches within SD, including CBSD and group model building, provide evidence of success in developing and using system dynamics models in diverse contexts, and serve as resources for groups interested in developing SD capabilities in their communities/contexts. Moreover, a strength SD shares with other causal modeling approaches, including Bayesian networks, is the correspondence between its visualizations and their underlying mathematical representations, which allows stakeholders to do more than visualize, but continue to develop deep insights about important data to collect and consider, as well as evaluate the impact of products and decisions through simulation.


We would like to thank Emily Denton, Ben Hutchinson, Sean Legassick, Silvia Chiappa, Matt Botvinick, Reena Jana, Dierdre Mulligan, and Deborah Raji for their valuable feedback on this paper.


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