The Markup launched just over two years ago as an investigative nonprofit that seeks to illuminate the ways that technology affects society. We remain the only tech-focused investigative newsroom in the nation, and we’re proud to use cutting-edge data and technology tools to examine the hidden biases in algorithms, from the mortgage approval processes used by lenders to crime prediction software sold to police. In each case, the algorithms were purported to be without bias. But again and again, using novel data scraping, massive data analysis, and statistical techniques, we lifted the veil and showed how massive companies are hurting people of color through automated decisions and reneging on their promises to the public.
Investigating private companies is among the most difficult reporting—and it’s even harder when you focus on tech giants, which hire armies of public relations staffers to thwart those efforts. So we have developed creative uses of technology to gather the information to hold them accountable. For instance, we built a tool that allowed us to collect anonymized data from individuals’ Facebook feeds, which we called Citizen Browser, and then hired a survey research firm to assemble a national panel of Facebook users willing to install it. Citizen Browser has fueled nearly two dozen investigations and powered two important persistent monitoring tools for our the public: Split Screen, a dashboard that showed what stories were most popular in the feeds of users of different genders, age groups, and voting preferences; and Trending on Facebook, a Twitter bot that tweeted out the most popular websites seen by our panelists each day. We’ve included interactive elements in our investigations to help readers comprehend the real-world effects algorithms have on their lives, and we’ve released a browser extension, Amazon Brand Detector, to help readers make more informed decisions as consumers. In order to get our reporting in front of as many people as possible, we collaborate with news organizations to distribute our content (the Associated Press and others) and co-report and co-publish (The New York Times, Consumer Reports, and others). We also publish under a Creative Commons license and use social platforms’ popular tools like Instagram Reels to explain our reporting and interactive polling features on Twitter and Instagram to hear our readers’ perspectives. We’re committed to accessibility, providing alt text on our images, captioning on our videos, and high-contrast graphics for readability.
Our peers have taken notice: Our Citizen Browser work is a finalist for a Scripps Howard Award for Excellence in Innovation. Emmanuel Martinez, Lauren Kirchner, and Malena Carollo’s reporting for the Denied series on mortgage approval algorithms has so far earned a Deadline Award for Reporting by Independent Digital Media (finalist for public service) and a Headliner Award for online investigative reporting. The Citizen Browser project and Prediction: Bias, on bias in predictive policing algorithms, were both shortlisted for Sigma Awards.