Monday, December 01, 2014

Ethics and Responsibility in Technology-for-Good: A Human-Centered Approach

Our networked world has advanced to a point where information technology is touching all aspects of society. The cost of prototyping and deploying new technology tools is now extremely low and data has the potential to accelerate social progress in areas ranging from poverty to human rights, education, health, and the environment. However, we have yet to come to grips with what is ethical and what the laws should be in relation to rapidly changing technologies.

Logo of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers' (IEEE) Society on Social Implications of Technology (SSIT).
This post originally appeared on the blog of the
Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers' (IEEE)
Society on Social Implications of Technology (SSIT).
At Benetech, we regularly grapple with questions related to this issue. For instance, we ask, how can we harness the power of technology for positive social impact; and how can we mitigate the risks to privacy and civil rights posed by the age of big data? As engineers who want to do the right thing, we follow four general guidelines: first, when it comes to data and technology in the social sector, apply a human-centered approach; second, treat the people you want to help with respect; third, when working to protect vulnerable communities, follow the “do no harm” maxim; and finally, bridge communities and establish partnerships-for-good. Let me explain further. 
  • Context matters
Building technology solutions for the social sector isn’t purely an armchair exercise, based on the thrill of empowering people in principle. We first understand those we aspire to help and the real-world conditions in which they live and operate. We must also put our technology innovations into the users’ hands, see what actually works, and adapt as necessary. This iterative method helps us focus on building products that are responsive to real needs
  • Treat users as customers, not recipients of charity
People in challenging situations must invest their time and limited resources to improve their lives. Our role as technologists is to provide the tools that empower them to do so. Treating them as customers, rather than objects of charity, promotes their sense of ownership and self-agency as they use the tools that we develop to achieve their own goals.
  • When it comes to data, rights, and privacy, first do no harm
Vulnerable groups served by social justice organizations-such as victims of human rights abuse, refugees, LGBT individuals, or survivors of gender-based violence-deserve the same kind of respect for their sensitive information as citizens of wealthy countries expect for theirs. Having long supported human rights activists, we know the importance of confidentiality when working with victims and witnesses. For instance, Benetech’s Human Rights Program is focused on helping human rights practitioners, activists, and journalists uphold their commitments to protect and do no harm to the communities they serve. Our strong cryptography technology, Martus—a free, open source, secure information management tool-makes it easier for groups working with vulnerable populations keep the sensitive information they collect confidential.
  • Community and partnership are paramount
Technology only goes so far in creating social progress, but a galvanized community of partners and supporters who work together toward a greater good can generate lasting impact. Case in point: our accessible online library, Bookshare. Bookshare is the result of joint efforts of our partners in the education, technology, publishing, student, parent, and volunteer communities. Our technical tools by themselves don’t make change: it is these communities using our tools that create social good. As toolmakers, our ultimate impact is measured by what other people build with our tools.

In a world where the benefits of technology are still often limited to reaching the richest 1% or 5% of society, we are trilled to see a growing movement of engineers motivated to help humanity. As technologists with a focus on creating social good, we need to keep in mind principles of safety and ethics. While the context and the users may vary in each case, the principles of human-centered design and treating others as we would like to be treated remain the same. If we can keep these principles in mind, we can turn good ideas into proven solutions with lasting impact.

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