Working in tech almost inevitably means coming face to face with ethical dilemmas. We will be exploring some of these dilemmas in our new blog series.
In the coming weeks, we will publish a series of blog posts exploring this topic. In this first post, we will give you some tips and tricks on how to bring ethics into your development team.
The problems we have to solve in the tech industry are often very complex. That’s why this industry attracts so many talented engineers, designers and business developers. Tough challenges are fun to solve! So, how can we leverage the talent of team members to tackle the ethical challenges of the product or solution we’re developing?
Well, while there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach, there are some really fundamental questions that each team could start by addressing.
Take a step back from all the technical, user and business perspectives for a while and focus on the value the solution is intended to provide and for whom. Does it bring us closer to achieving any of the UN Sustainable Development Goals? Will it improve society? Are the intentions morally positive, negative or neutral?
A solution to empower elderly people to live more independently has morally positive intentions; a solution to create audio deepfakes to commit fraud has morally negative intentions. This question is not about how the solution is developed or how it could be misused (they are addressed in other questions). Instead, it’s about what the solution itself is intended to do and how ethical that is.
While answering this question, it might be useful to consult experts who are not working directly in the tech industry. Moral philosophers, human rights experts and environmental scientists might have insights your team could benefit from. Reach out to them!
The 2018 video game Assassins Creed: Odyssey has a starting screen which proudly tells the user that it was developed by a “…multicultural team of various beliefs, sexual orientations and gender identities”. This team decided that if they were to build an inclusive experience they needed to be an inclusive team.
The second ethical question is therefore about understanding your team. Who are you, what are your team biases, how can these biases influence the direction of the solution and how can you counteract them? It is rarely a bad idea to involve real users in the development of a product and this is a great way to uncover bias in your team. Which all leads to the next question…
How will your users’ lives change as a result of your solution and how can you make sure the change is positive? Well, firstly you need to understand them. This is a fundamental principle in Design Thinking and, thankfully, not a new concept in software development. It’s about building empathy with real users and bringing them into the development process. It’s about accessibility, inclusion and understanding the impact your solution will have on real people.
Even with the best of intentions, how might your solution be misused? What are the consequences of this misuse and, most importantly, what can you do in the development of your solution to prevent that misuse? Take Anonymous Messaging, for example. If you take the time to consider it, then cyberbullying might well pop up as an unintended consequence. So, as a team, you ask yourselves, ‘what can be done to prevent this being used as a bullying tool?’
Through answering the above questions, you have created your own Ethical Declaration. This declaration is something which every team member should be familiar with. Some teams print theirs out and pin it to the wall. It colours the direction of the project and is something which becomes a living artefact, constantly updated and adjusted as the project progresses. The continuous adjustment is crucial. For each big step the project takes, for example for each large set of features it implements, the team has to consider how this impacts the Ethical Declaration and vice versa.
The same process of assessing what is being built is also useful for customers. The customers might not understand the impact of what they are ordering and the ways in which the solution could be misused. Therefore, the creation of the Ethics Declaration is as much of an eye-opening experience for customers as it is for the team building the solutions. Our experience working with these questions is that inviting the customer into the process together with the development team is very rewarding.
There will always be mistakes and there will always be teams that, for one reason or another, set the ethical bar too low. However, by bringing ethics to the forefront it’s much harder to accidentally create something unethical.
With over 20 year experience working with healthcare IT, Simon is now heading Innovation in Tietoevry's innovation unit called d|lab. He’s passionate about raising awareness around the ethics of technology, and the impact technology has on people’s lives. He’s originally from Ireland but has been living in Oslo for the past ten years