Blog 27.10.2020

Ethical decision-making is everyday life of IT professionals

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Ethics and technology are ubiquitous, i.e. present everywhere. Ethical decision-making is a core aspect of IT consulting, but what does that mean in practice? I would argue that we constantly engage in ethical dialogue in everyday situations, little by little, or sometimes urgently. Such decisions often concern questions that no one can yet answer, but which need to be addressed immediately because the digital world never stops.

Artificial intelligence and social media are ideal subjects for ethical debate because they force us to confront the shortcomings of digitalisation. Many of the examples given are glaring, perhaps far-fetched. However, they also pave the way for broader and more down-to-earth reflection on how the digital world should function, on whose terms and for whose needs is it designed, and in which forums are the related issues addressed.

Whereas traditional power structures are only just adapting to the ethical challenges of the transition, we IT professionals must continuously solve such issues. The decisions we take affect the daily lives of millions of people via thousands of systems: such power should not be underestimated. Finns have exceptionally strong trust in the public sector and authorities. This trust is the result of long and systematic work, and as designers of public services, we must ensure that this well-earned trust is maintained, preferably even deepened.

Who will create the system used to process your data?

We are still living in the wild west of digitalisation, where data can be more or less freely sifted for gold. We are also beginning to develop a clear idea of how we do not want algorithms to work, and how we can do better ourselves. EU regulations and directives, national laws and organisations’ own strategies and policies are pointing the way to a set of shared ground rules. This does not eliminate the need for self-regulation by organisations, because ethical decisions are actually taken as and when needed:

  • We want to combine, analyse and visualise data collected from a range of sources. We cannot anonymise natural language automatically and reliably. Would it be harmful if we identified risks and declared them openly in our Privacy Policy?
  • Secondary use of health record data creates endless opportunities for product development. Do we really have to be scientific researchers to gain access to data?
  • The GDPR Privacy Shield procedure failed, and personal data can no longer be transferred to the USA. This makes many of the systems we use illegal in practice. What can we do?

The problem is crystallised when we encounter this sort of  challenges in everyday life: while technology advances at dizzying speed, we need time for ethical discussion. In addition, ethical discussion almost always requires multi-professional expertise and policies at top level, perhaps even globally. On the other hand, few Scrum ceremonies or project meetings are attended by people authorised to take these decisions within organisations.

Like systems, ethical solutions are based on iterations. Agile practices are no excuse for avoiding an ethical debate. In fact, they enable fast changes of direction, and lessons can be learned from any wrong decisions along the way. As challenges are identified, organisational, national and international structures are beginning to emerge for solving them. Precedents, initially thought to be individual cases, help in the progress of the overall process.

Ethics in the IT sector often concerns user rights, and service users are being consulted more often. For example, service design has brought end-users closer to service providers and developers, while the Web Accessibility Directive has improved the level of public services. Listening to the customer does not mean an extra price tag, but is a natural part of IT development.

Credits: Nawras Odda / Saut

The privilege of doing the right thing

Digital ethics sounds very high level, perhaps even intimidating. However, in addition to complying with laws and regulations, it is a question of making daily choices with the aim of doing the right thing: We can decide to formulate terms of use of services and privacy policies so that customers can easily understand their rights and what they are agreeing to. We can offer payable service versions to those who do not want to use services in exchange for their data. We can consciously formulate job ads to appeal to Muhammed and Mandy as much as Michael. We can ensure that AI is based only on training data which is a comprehensive sample of the subject and which we have permission to use. We can sleep soundly at night when we ensure that we act ethically.

However, current decision-making processes are subject to the risk of the wrong people having to make quick and sometimes wrong decisions to ensure that work gets done, perhaps without the knowledge, authority or budget needed to choose correctly. This is not a responsible process, or a pleasant one for the individuals concerned. Ethical responsibility should always be borne by organisations tasked with helping individuals to do the right thing. On the other hand, the discussion should not be confined to management teams and lawyers — it is important that all those who want to help build better digital services can do so to the best of their ability.

A toolbox could guide IT professionals in ethical decision-making

While numerous organisations have recently had to agree on common teleworking rules, the ethical basis for digital services should also be written up, to provide experts with practical tools for weighing up the right choices. Data strategies, data protection impact assessments, ethical guidelines, and agreements and requirements – as well as the rich discussion around individual cases — can support us in our work. At some point, the new practices and laws will become ‘hygiene’ issues, and in five years’ time we may no longer have to agonise about what web accessibility means, and how to guarantee it, in every project. The EU’s General Data Protection Regulation, which caused grey hair and sleepless nights at first, has already become part of everyday life.

Work has got off to a good start, but more tools and procedures are needed. Our aim at Gofore is ambitious: we want to be a forerunner of responsibility in our own industry and have. In order to genuinely work towards creating a better world, a lot of concrete action is needed. For example, in line with Gofore’s Good Growth concept, we are formulating metrics and methods to support sustainable growth, and the company’s first Code of Ethics was jointly created early in the year. Our ethical guidelines beautifully conclude what it is all about: how to be humane and to radiate goodness around us. Maybe what is done routinely can be sublime at the same time.




Kirsi Aantaa

Kirsi Aantaa works at Gofore as Service Architect and helps her customers especially with procurement. Kirsi is a humanist with a passion for designing smart, ethical, and value-creating digital services.

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