FRRIICT: Oxford Workshop

Framework for Responsible Research & Innovation in ICT (FRIICT) is an ESRC research project led by Marina Jirotka from the University of Oxford and Bernd Stahl from De Montfort University.  Last month I attended their inaugural workshop, entitled “Identifying and addressing ethical issues in technology-related social research”.

The overall aim of the project is to:

  • develop an in-depth understanding of ICT researchers’ ethical issues and dilemmas in conducting ICT research;
  • provide of a set of recommendations and good practice to be adopted by EPSRC and the community;
  • create a self sustaining ‘ICT Observatory’ serving as a community portal and providing access to all outputs of the project.

The workshop took place in Oxford and was attended by about thirty people, mainly technology researchers or social scientists who intend to use ICT to collect research data, as well as a couple of lawyers.

The weather in Oxford was glorious but the sessions were lively enough to ensure that people didn’t get too bored by sitting inside.  Most of the two days were given over to discussion of case studies and general discussion.    The two (fabricated) case studies I worked on with groups were:

1.) Digital Sensory Room for Hospices: a therapeutic, calming sensory environment incorporating music, light, colour, smell and touch and digital communication tools which may be particularly useful for patients who have difficulty with self-expression

2.) Smartnews Inc: a smartphone news app which personalises a feed based on crowdsourcing data from relevant Twitter communities

I won’t reproduce the deliberations here, but the feeling in the group I was in was that the first of these had very little research validity (unsupported assumptions); a number of methodological problems (how to measure quality of life?); and came across as a desperate attempt by a HCI researcher to find a problem to which technology could be the solution.  The second case provokes questions about how data is shared through a service like Twitter and what kind of notion of consent might be in operation with respect to the use and storage of personal data.

The basic approach that FRRIICT seems to be following at the moment is roughly as follows:

  1. Begin with a stakeholder analysis which identifies those who might be affected by a particular intervention
  2. Sketch out the relevant rights, responsibilities and issues of that stakeholder
  3. Work out how these issues might be addressed in the context of the project
  4. Deduce whether a protocol can be derived and applied in other cases
  5. Share

Getting people with a science or technology background to think ‘ethically’ can be quite challenging.  (I tried to sketch out a tool for doing this is in my paper on ethics and mobile learning.)  Researchers typically think of ethics in terms of compliance: as long as the research ethics committee approves a project, that’s good enough for them.  For many of them, this is their only formal encounter with ethics.  But contemporary researchers working with ICT need a better awareness of how technology works, and should think about the wider social impact of technology.   Nonetheless, from a researcher’s point of view, being able to justifiably describe the consent of stakeholders as ‘informed’ is still perhaps the most important part of ‘being ethical’.  The problem, it seems to me, is that reflecting on ethics is one thing, but as soon as you want to discuss or collectively analyse these issues it strikes me that you need at least a minimal grasp of concepts and vocabulary from moral philosophy.  Arguably, everyone has an implicit sense of notions like duty, consequence and the development of moral excellence.  But moral philosophy offers ways to bring these things out and make them explicit without reducing them to pseudo-scientific decision-making tools.  Ethics is not structured like a science (or a stakeholder analysis).  Hopefully FRIICT will help us to work out the most effective forms of ethical reflection in these research contexts.

Here’s some copy from the call for papers from the next workshop (to be held in September):

As technology progressively pervades all aspects of our lives, HCI researchers are engaging with increasingly sensitive contexts. Areas under scrutiny include the provision of appropriate technology access for those approaching the end of life, the design of a social network site for parents of babies in a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, and the design of interactive memorials in post-genocide Rwanda. The ethical and methodological considerations generated by research in sensitive contexts can go well beyond those addressed by standard ethical approval processes in Computing Science departments and research groups. Such processes need time to catch up with the innovative areas which HCI research is engaging with.

The aim of this workshop is to bring together researchers and practitioners with a common interest in conducting HCI research in sensitive contexts. Examples of ‘sensitive contexts’ include working with potentially vulnerable individuals such as children, adults with disabilities and cloistered nuns, and working in communities affected by a traumatic event. By sharing their experiences and reflections, participants in the workshop will generate a collective understanding of the ethical issues surrounding HCI research in sensitive contexts. We hope that participants will subsequently use this understanding to inform the design of ethical review processes in their own research groups, and incorporate awareness of ethical considerations into research design.

67 interviews (grounded research) were carried out EPSRC management and researchers, NGOs, professional organisations in a preparatory phase of the research.  The researchers found the following:

  • There is a perception that ethics is not strictly speaking a part of ICT research
  • 2/3 of respondents believed that technology is value-neutral.  The other third believes that ‘social value’ plays a part in technology research
  • Most ICT researchers only think about ethics in terms of securing private data and acquiring informed consent for experiments involving human subjects
  • Many researchers feel that their responsibility is to come up with reliable results

Insights thus far:

  • We must recalibrate ‘long term’ and ‘generic’ research: debunk the idea that basic research takes place outside of society
  • Reposition foresight methodologies and make them more approachable
  • We need to refine definitions of ICT as well as acknowledging and meeting skepticism
  • Use cases and misuse cases are typically deterministic and contrived
  • We need to develop new scenarios within ICT research which are more relevant to emerging contexts: social media, geo-tagging, ‘big data’, etc.
  • How can systems be designed in such a way that they demonstrate appreciation of ethical issues?

Published by Rob Farrow

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