My current thinking about what to bring to my open data and data governance work, as well as to technology development, especially in the context of networked agency, can be summarised under the moniker ‘ethics by design’. In a practical sense this means setting non-functional requirements at the start of a design or development process, or when tweaking or altering existing systems and processes. Non-functional requirements that reflect the values you want to safeguard or ensure, or potential negative consequences you want to mitigate. Privacy, power asymmetries, individual autonomy, equality, and democratic control are examples of this.
Today I attended the ‘Big Data Festival’ in The Hague, organised by the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management. Here several government organisations presented themselves and the work they do using data as an intensive resource. Stuff that speaks to the technologist in me. In parallel there were various presentations and workshops, and there I was most interested in what was said about ethical issues around data.
Author and interviewer Bas Heijne set the scene at the start by pointing to the contrast between the technology optimism concerning digitisation of years back and the more dystopian discussion (triggered by things like the Cambridge Analytica scandal and cyberwars), and sought the balance in the middle. I think that contrast is largely due to the difference in assumptions underneath the utopian and dystopian views. The techno-optimist perspective, at least in the webscene I frequented in the late 90’s and early 00’s assumed the tools would be in the hands of individuals, who would independently weave the world wide web, smart at the edges and dumb at the center. The dystopian views, including those of early criticaster like Aron Lanier, assumed, and were proven at least partly right, a centralisation into walled gardens where individuals are mere passive users or an object, and no longer a subject with autonomy. This introduces wildly different development paths concerning power distribution, equality and agency.
In the afternoon a session with professor Jeroen van den Hoven, of Delft University, focused on making the ethical challenges more tangible as well as pointed to the beginnings of practical ways to address them. It was the second time I heard him present in a month. A few weeks ago I attended an Ethics and Internet of Things workshop at University of Twente, organised by UNESCO World Commission on the Ethics of Science and Technology (COMEST). There he gave a very worthwile presentation as well.
Van den Hoven “if we don’t design for our values…”
What I call ethics by design, a term I first heard from prof Valerie Frissen, Van den Hoven calls value sensitive design. That term sounds more pragmatic but I feel conveys the point less strongly. This time he also incorporated the geopolitical aspects of data governance, which echoed what Rob van Kranenburg (IoT Council, Next Generation Internet) presented at that workshop last month (and which I really should write down separately). It was good to hear it reinforced for today’s audience of mainly civil servants, as currently there is a certain level of naivety involved in how (mainly local governments) collaborate with commercial partners around data collection and e.g. sensors in the public space.
(Malfunctioning) billboard at Utrecht Central Station a few days ago, with not thought through camera in a public space (to measure engagement with adverts). Civic resistance taped over the camera.
Value sensitive design, said Van den Hoven, should seek to combine the power of technology with the ethical values, into services and products. Instead of treating it as a dilemma with an either/or choice, which is the usual way it is framed: Social networking OR privacy, security OR privacy, surveillance capitalism OR personal autonomy, smart cities OR human messiness and serendipity. In value sensitive design it is about ensuring the individual is still a subject in the philosophical sense, and not merely the object on which data based services feed. By addressing both values and technological benefits as the same design challenge (security AND privacy, etc.), one creates a path for responsible innovation.
The audience saw both responsibilities for individual citizens as well as governments in building that path, and none thought turning one’s back on technology to fictitious simpler times would work, although some were doubtful if there was still room to stem the tide.