Today it is Global Ethics Day. My colleague Emily wanted to mark it given our increasing involvement in information ethics, and organised an informal online get together, a Global Ethics Day party, with a focus on data ethics. We showed the participants our work on an ethical reference for using geodata, and the thesis work our newest colleague Pauline finished this spring on ethical leadership within municipal governments. I was asked to kick the event off with some remarks to spark discussion.

I took the opportunity to define and launch a new moniker, Ethics as a Practice (EaaP).(1)
The impulse for me to do that comes out of two things that I have a certain dislike for, in how I see organisations deal with the ethics of working with data and using data to directly inform decisions.

The first concerns treating the philosophy of technology, information and data ethics in general as a purely philosophical and scientific debate. It, due to abstraction, then has no immediate bearing on the things organisations, I and others do in practice. Worse, regularly it approaches actual problems purely starting from that abstraction, ending up with posing ethical questions I think are irrelevant to reality on the ground. An example would be MIT’s notion that classical trolly problems have bearing on how to create autonomous vehicles. It seems to me because they don’t appreciate that saying autonomous vehicle, does not mean the vehicle is an indepenent actor to which blame etc can be applied, and that ‘autonomous’ merely means that a vehicle is independent from its previous driver, but otherwise fully embedded in a wide variety of other dependencies. Not autonomous at all, no ghost in the machine.


The campus of University of Twente, where they do some great ethics work w.r.t. to technology. But in itself it’s not sufficient. (image by me, CC BY SA)

The second concerns seeing ‘Ethics by design’ as a sufficient fix. I dislike that because it carries 2 assumptions that are usually not acknowledged. Ethics by design in practice seems to be perceived as ethics being only a concern in the design phase of a new technology, process, approach or method. Whereas at least 95% of what organisations and professionals deal with isn’t new but existing, so as a result remains out of scope of ethical considerations. It’s an assumption that everything that exists has been thoroughly ethically evaluated, which isn’t true, not at all even when it comes to existing data collection. Ethics has no role at all in existing data governance for instance, and data governance usually doesn’t cover data collection choices or its deletion/archiving.
The other assumption conveyed by the term ‘ethics by design’ is that once the design phase is completed, ethics has been sufficiently dealt with. The result is, with 95% of our environment remaining the same, that ethics by design is forward looking but not backwards compatible. Ethics by design is seen as doing enough, but it isn’t enough at all.


Ethics by design in itself does not provide absolution (image by Jordanhill School D&T Dept, license CC BY)

Our everyday actions and choices in our work are the expression of our individual and organisational values. The ‘ethics by design’ label sidesteps that everyday reality.

Both taken together, ethics as academic endeavour and ethics by design, result in ethics basically being outsourced to someone specific outside or in the organisation, or at best to a specific person in your team, and starts getting perceived as something external being delivered to your work reality. Ethics as a Service (EaaS) one might say, a service that takes care of the ethical aspects. That perception means you yourself can stop thinking about ethics, it’s been allocated, and you can just take its results and run with it. The privacy officer does privacy, the QA officer does quality assurance, the CISO does information security, and the ethics officer covers everything ethical…..meaning I can carry on as usual. (e.g. Enron had a Code of Ethics, but it had no bearing on the practical work or decisions taken.)

That perception of EaaS, ethics as an externally provided service to your work has real detrimental consequences. It easily becomes an outside irritant to the execution of your work. Someone telling you ‘no’ when you really want to do something. A bureaucratic template to fill in to be able to claim compliance (similarly as how privacy, quality, regulations are often treated). Ticking the boxes on a checklist without actual checks. That way it becomes something overly reductionist, which denies and ignores the complexity of everyday knowledge work.


Externally applied ethics become an irritant (image by Iain Watson, license CC BY)

Ethical questions and answers are actually an integral part of the complexity of your work. Your work is the place where clear boundaries can be set (by the organisation, by general ethics, law), ánd the place where you can notice as well as introduce behavioural patterns and choices. Complexity can only be addressed from within that complexity, not as an outside intervention. Ethics therefore needs to be dealt with from within the complexity of actual work and as one of the ingredients of it.

Placing ethics considerations in the midst of the complexity of our work, means that the spot where ethics are expressed in real work choices overlaps where such aspects are considered. It makes EaaS as a stand alone thing impossible, and instead brings those considerations into your everyday work not as an external thing but as an ingredient.

That is what I mean by Ethics as a Practice. Where you use academic and organisational output, where ethics is considered in the design stage, but never to absolve you from your professional responsibilities.
It still means setting principles and hard boundaries from the organisational perspective, but also an ongoing active reflection on them and on the heuristics that guide your choices, and it actively seeks out good practice. It never assumes a yes or no to an ethical question by default, later to be qualified or rationalised, but also does not approach those questions as neutral (as existing principles and boundaries are applied).(2) That way (data) ethical considerations become an ethics of your agency as a professional, informing your ability to act. It embraces the actual complexity of issues, acknowledges that daily reality is messy, engages all relevant stakeholders, and deliberately seeks out a community of peers to spot good practices.

Ethics is part and parcel of your daily messy work, it’s your practice to hone. (image by Neil Cummings, license CC BY SA)

Ethics as a Practice (EaaP) is a call to see yourself as an ethics practitioner, and a member of a community of practice of such practitioners, not as someone ethics ‘is done to’. So you can always do the next right thing ( 😉 ). Our meet-up today was a step to have such an exchange between peers.

(1) the ‘..as a Practice’ notion I took from Anne-Laure Le Cunff’s Ness Labs posting that mentioned ‘playfulness as a practice’.
(2) not starting from yes or no, nor from a neutral position, taken from the mediation theory by University of Twente’s prof Peter Paul Verbeek

Replied to - Digging the Digital by Frank Meeuwsen (Digging the Digital)
Ik haal de meeste waarde uit hele praktische uitleg met een werkelijke usecase. Dus geen demo-content, geen zoveelste reis die wordt gepland in een app (alsof je nu op reis kunt…) maar echt hoe iemand van dag tot dag Obsidian gebruikt in werk en hobby.

Ik zal je wens ter harte nemen bij het schrijven van mijn ‘100 dagen in Obsidian’ post. 😀

Obsidian is adding block references to its tool in the latest build v0.9.5.. Thanks to Neil for pointing it out as a follow-up to a conversation we had last month on what block references are and how they’re useful. I’m on build v0.9.3 so will have to wait a bit, but Neil’s pointer also led me to read the release note of earlier intermediate releases, such as the version I am currently using.

That in turn made me discover new functionality I wasn’t aware of, but that does cater to something I encountered in my own use of Obsidian: if you search, you can grab the entire search results as a list of links to the notes that contain the search term, and have that as a note. That is very useful to me (would be even greater if I could populate a note with search results dynamically).

This is definetely a word I’ll remember: data visceralisation.
The term is suggested for data visualization in virtual reality, so that people can better experience differences in data, understand them viscerally.

It is something that I think definitely is useful, not just in virtual reality but also in making data visualisation physical, which I called ‘tangible infographics’ in 2014. You switch the perspective to one or more other senses, thus changing the phenomenological experience, which can yield new insights.

In both, tangible infographics and data visceralisation, the quest is to let people feel the meaning of certain datasets, so they grasp that meaning in a different way than with the more rational parts of their mind. (Hans Rosling’s toilet paper rolls to convey global population developments come to mind too).

Benjamin Lee et al wrote a paper and released a video exploring a number of design probes. I’m not sure I find the video, uhm, a visceral experience, but the experiments are interesting.

They look at 6 experimental probes:

  1. speed (olympic sprint)
  2. distance (olympic long jump)
  3. height (of buildings)
  4. scale (planets in the solar system)
  5. quantities (Hong Kong protest size)
  6. abstract measures (US debt)

The authors point to something that is also true for the examples of 3d printed statistics I mentioned in my old blog post which are much less useful with ‘large numbers’ because the objects would become unwieldy or lose meaning. There is therefore a difference between the first three examples, which are all at human scale, and the other three which aim to convey something that is (much) bigger than us and our everyday sense of our surroundings. That carries additional hurdles to make them ‘visceral’.

(Found in Nathan Yau’s blog FlowingData)

Through my feedreader Jane McConnell tells me she’s started using Obsidian to re-organise her notes into a network of information. She points to a 2001 (!) posting by Thomas Vander Wal, a long time connection of mine, about a model of attraction for information. I’ll have to read that 2001 article by Thomas, and think about what I can use from it (attractors, barriers, patterns and boundaries are important elements in looking at complexity, and feature in my own information strategies as well). Then I realised I hadn’t read anything by Thomas recently, only to find out I was subscribed to the wrong RSS feed. Having fixed that, I stumbled upon his recent posting on his own note taking system and the role of Obsidian in it.

All in all a pattern that suggests I really should add my write-up of using Obsidian for 100 days and contribute it to the distributed conversation.