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Fairness Indicators: Thinking about Fairness Evaluation

Interested in leveraging the Fairness Indicators Beta?

Before you do, we ask that you read through the following guidance.

Fairness Indicators is a useful tool for evaluating binary and multi-class classifiers for fairness. Eventually, we hope to expand this tool, in partnership with all of you, to evaluate even more considerations.

Keep in mind that quantitative evaluation is only one part of evaluating a broader user experience. Start by thinking about the different contexts through which a user may experience your product. Who are the different types of users your product is expected to serve? Who else may be affected by the experience?

When considering AI's impact on people, it is important to always remember that human societies are extremely complex! Understanding people, and their social identities, social structures and cultural systems are each huge fields of open research in their own right. Throw in the complexities of cross-cultural differences around the globe, and getting even a foothold on understanding societal impact can be challenging. Whenever possible, we recommend consulting with appropriate domain experts, which may include social scientists, sociolinguists, and cultural anthropologists, as well as with members of the populations on which technology will be deployed.

A single model, for example, the toxicity model that we leverage in our example colab, can be used in many different contexts. A toxicity model deployed on a website to filter offensive comments, for example, is a very different use case than the model being deployed in an example web UI where users can type in a sentence and see what score the model gives. Depending on the use case, and how users experience the model prediction, your product will have different risks, effects, and opportunities and you may want to evaluate for different fairness concerns.

The questions above are the foundation of what ethical considerations, including fairness, you may want to take into account when designing and developing your ML-based product. These questions also motivate which metrics and which groups of users you should use the tool to evaluate.

Before diving in further, here are three resources we recommend as you get started:

  • The People + AI Guidebook for Human-centered AI design: This guidebook is a great resource for the questions and aspects to keep in mind when designing a machine-learning based product. While we created this guidebook with designers in mind, many of the principles will help answer questions like the one we posed above.
  • Our Fairness Lessons Learned: This talk at Google I/O discusses lessons we have learned in our goal to build and design inclusive products.
  • ML Crash Course: Fairness: The ML Crash Course has a 70 minute section dedicated to identifying and evaluating fairness concerns

So, why look at individual slices? Evaluation over individual slices is important as strong overall metrics can obscure poor performance for certain groups. Similarly, performing well for a certain metric (accuracy, AUC) doesn’t always translate to acceptable performance for other metrics (false positive rate, false negative rate) that are equally important in assessing opportunity and harm for users.

The below sections will walk through some of the aspects to consider.

Which groups should I slice by?

In general, a good practice is to slice by as many groups as may be affected by your product, since you never know when performance might differ for one of the other. However, if you aren’t sure, think about the different users who may be engaging with your product, and how they might be affected. Consider, especially, slices related to sensitive characteristics such as race, ethnicity, gender, nationality, income, sexual orientation, and disability status.

What if I don’t have data labeled for the slices I want to investigate?

Good question. We know that many datasets don’t have ground-truth labels for individual identity attributes.

If you find yourself in this position, we recommend a few approaches:

  1. Identify if there are attributes that you have that may give you some insight into the performance across groups. For example, geography while not equivalent to ethnicity & race, may help you uncover any disparate patterns in performance
  2. Identify if there are representative public datasets that might map well to your problem. You can find a range of diverse and inclusive datasets on the Google AI site, which include Project Respect, Inclusive Images, and Open Images Extended, among others.
  3. Leverage rules or classifiers, when relevant, to label your data with objective surface-level attributes. For example, you can label text as to whether or not there is an identity term in the sentence. Keep in mind that classifiers have their own challenges, and if you’re not careful, may introduce another layer of bias as well. Be clear about what your classifier is actually classifying. For example, an age classifier on images is in fact classifying perceived age. Additionally, when possible, leverage surface-level attributes that can be objectively identified in the data. For example, it is ill-advised to build an image classifier for race or ethnicity, because these are not visual traits that can be defined in an image. A classifier would likely pick up on proxies or stereotypes. Instead, building a classifier for skin tone may be a more appropriate way to label and evaluate an image. Lastly, ensure high accuracy for classifiers labeling such attributes.
  4. Find more representative data that is labeled

Always make sure to evaluate on multiple, diverse datasets.

If your evaluation data is not adequately representative of your user base, or the types of data likely to be encountered, you may end up with deceptively good fairness metrics. Similarly, high model performance on one dataset doesn’t guarantee high performance on others.

Keep in mind subgroups aren’t always the best way to classify individuals.

People are multidimensional and belong to more than one group, even within a single dimension -- consider someone who is multiracial, or belongs to multiple racial groups. Also, while overall metrics for a given racial group may look equitable, particular interactions, such as race and gender together may show unintended bias. Moreover, many subgroups have fuzzy boundaries which are constantly being redrawn.

When have I tested enough slices, and how do I know which slices to test?

We acknowledge that there are a vast number of groups or slices that may be relevant to test, and when possible, we recommend slicing and evaluating a diverse and wide range of slices and then deep-diving where you spot opportunities for improvement. It is also important to acknowledge that even though you may not see concerns on slices you have tested, that doesn’t imply that your product works for all users, and getting diverse user feedback and testing is important to ensure that you are continually identifying new opportunities.

To get started, we recommend thinking through your particular use case and the different ways users may engage with your product. How might different users have different experiences? What does that mean for slices you should evaluate? Collecting feedback from diverse users may also highlight potential slices to prioritize.

Which metrics should I choose?

When selecting which metrics to evaluate for your system, consider who will be experiencing your model, how it will be experienced, and the effects of that experience.

For example, how does your model give people more dignity or autonomy, or positively impact their emotional, physical or financial wellbeing? In contrast, how could your model’s predictions reduce people's dignity or autonomy, or negatively impact their emotional, physical or financial wellbeing?

In general, we recommend slicing all your existing performance metrics as good practice. We also recommend evaluating your metrics across multiple thresholds in order to understand how the threshold can affect the performance for different groups.

In addition, if there is a predicted label which is uniformly "good" or “bad”, then consider reporting (for each subgroup) the rate at which that label is predicted. For example, a “good” label would be a label whose prediction grants a person access to some resource, or enables them to perform some action.

Critical fairness metrics for classification

When thinking about a classification model, think about the effects of errors (the differences between the actual “ground truth” label, and the label from the model). If some errors may pose more opportunity or harm to your users, make sure you evaluate the rates of these errors across groups of users. These error rates are defined below, in the metrics currently supported by the Fairness Indicators beta.

Over the course of the next year, we hope to release case studies of different use cases and the metrics associated with these so that we can better highlight when different metrics might be most appropriate.

Metrics available today in Fairness Indicators

Note: There are many valuable fairness metrics that are not currently supported in the Fairness Indicators beta. As we continue to add more metrics, we will continue to add guidance for these metrics, here. Below, you can access instructions to add your own metrics to Fairness Indicators. Additionally, please reach out to if there are metrics that you would like to see. We hope to partner with you to build this out further.

Positive Rate / Negative Rate

  • Definition: The percentage of data points that are classified as positive or negative, independent of ground truth
  • Relates to: Demographic Parity and Equality of Outcomes, when equal across subgroups
  • When to use this metric: Fairness use cases where having equal final percentages of groups is important

True Positive Rate / False Negative Rate

  • Definition: The percentage of positive data points (as labeled in the ground truth) that are correctly classified as positive, or the percentage of positive data points that are incorrectly classified as negative
  • Relates to: Equality of Opportunity (for the positive class), when equal across subgroups
  • When to use this metric: Fairness use cases where it is important that the same % of qualified candidates are rated positive in each group. This is most commonly recommended in cases of classifying positive outcomes, such as loan applications, school admissions, or whether content is kid-friendly

True Negative Rate / False Positive Rate

  • Definition: The percentage of negative data points (as labeled in the ground truth) that are correctly classified as negative, or the percentage of negative data points that are incorrectly classified as positive
  • Relates to: Equality of Opportunity (for the negative class), when equal across subgroups
  • When to use this metric: Fairness use cases where error rates (or misclassifying something as positive) are more concerning than classifying the positives. This is most common in abuse cases, where positives often lead to negative actions. These are also important for Facial Analysis Technologies such as face detection or face attributes

Accuracy & AUC

  • Relates to: Predictive Parity, when equal across subgroups
  • When to use these metrics: Cases where precision of the task is most critical (not necessarily in a given direction), such as face identification or face clustering

False Discovery Rate

  • Definition: The percentage of negative data points (as labeled in the ground truth) that are incorrectly classified as positive out of all data points classified as positive. This is also the inverse of PPV
  • Relates to: Predictive Parity (also known as Calibration), when equal across subgroups
  • When to use this metric: Cases where the fraction of correct positive predictions should be equal across subgroups

False Omission Rate

  • Definition: The percentage of positive data points (as labeled in the ground truth) that are incorrectly classified as negative out of all data points classified as negative. This is also the inverse of NPV
  • Relates to: Predictive Parity (also known as Calibration), when equal across subgroups
  • When to use this metric: Cases where the fraction of correct negative predictions should be equal across subgroups

Examples of which metrics to select

  • Systematically failing to detect faces in a camera app can lead to a negative user experience for certain user groups. In this case, false negatives in a face detection system may lead to product failure, while a false positive (detecting a face when there isn’t one) may pose a slight annoyance to the user. Thus, evaluating and minimizing the false negative rate is important for this use case.
  • Unfairly marking text comments from certain people as “spam” or “high toxicity” in a moderation system leads to certain voices being silenced. On one hand, a high false positive rate leads to unfair censorship. On the other, a high false negative rate could lead to a proliferation of toxic content from certain groups, which may both harm the user and constitute a representational harm for those groups. Thus, both metrics are important to consider, in addition to metrics which take into account all types of errors such as accuracy or AUC.

Don’t see the metrics you’re looking for?

Follow the documentation here to add you own custom metric.

Final notes

A gap in metric between two groups can be a sign that your model may have unfair skews. You should interpret your results according to your use case. However, the first sign that you may be treating one set of users unfairly is when the metrics between that set of users and your overall are significantly different. Make sure to account for confidence intervals when looking at these differences. When you have too few samples in a particular slice, the difference between metrics may not be accurate.

Achieving equality across groups on Fairness Indicators doesn’t mean the model is fair. Systems are highly complex, and achieving equality on one (or even all) of the provided metrics can’t guarantee Fairness.

Fairness evaluations should be run throughout the development process and post-launch (not the day before launch). Just like improving your product is an ongoing process and subject to adjustment based on user and market feedback, making your product fair and equitable requires ongoing attention. As different aspects of the model changes, such as training data, inputs from other models, or the design itself, fairness metrics are likely to change. “Clearing the bar” once isn’t enough to ensure that all of the interacting components have remained intact over time.

Adversarial testing should be performed for rare, malicious examples. Fairness evaluations aren’t meant to replace adversarial testing. Additional defense against rare, targeted examples is crucial as these examples probably will not manifest in training or evaluation data.