Assessing the Ethical, Legal and Social Impacts of new technologies: the DEVELOP project case study

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Dr David Barnard-Wills | Research Innovation Lead

Date: 22 February 2018

Trilateral’s interdisciplinary team is made of data scientists, computer scientists, social scientists and ethical and legal experts who develop, test and implement technologies that pay attention to ethical, legal and social impacts, respects human rights and dignities, and avoids negative and unwanted outcomes. We work across the technology-social disciplinary divide both when we engage in research or technological development more broadly.

A good example of this approach is the work carried out with our partners during the DEVELOP project (Developing careers through social networks and transversal competencies). Our team focused on privacy and data protection while not discounting other ethical and social issues, aiming to provide a comprehensive impact assessment.

DEVELOP Ethical, Legal and Social Impact Assessment

DEVELOP is a three-year project that will develop a personalised learning environment for career development. The DEVELOP system will provide the assessment of transversal competencies (skills like leadership, decisions making, negotiation) and social capital to highlight learning opportunities for career development. It will combine this with personalised visualisations of potential career paths to inform and guide learners towards realistic and attainable careers.

Our team aimed to develop an impact assessment to identify and manage the risks associated with these ambitions. We analysed various elements, such as:

  • the significance of career development to workers;
  • increased data collection required for personalisation;
  • the difficulty of understanding (and contesting) decisions made by AI systems;
  • the ethical issue around understanding and using social capital in the workplace, for example, understanding that people of different genders and ethnic backgrounds both tend to have different types of social networks, and get different types of benefits from those networks.

We analysed the users’ perspective both from the employees and employers’ point of view.

Employees may want to use a tool to manage their career development and gain insight into their next steps, but likely they will also have privacy concerns or worries about giving their employers too much information about their goals and aspirations. They may also increasingly have concerns about leaving their career development up to a black-box algorithm.

Employers will have concerns about the technology’s compliance with data protection. The results of the impact assessment will be then crucial in demonstrating that they can legally and ethically deploy DEVELOP solution within their organisations.

Integrating Ethical and Privacy requirements within technology development, develop project

Integrating Ethical and Privacy requirements within technology development

DEVELOP is following an Agile methodology and our team’s privacy and ethics impact assessment has been catered to integrate with this common software development approach.

This has meant developing a close relationship with the technology developers, participating in sprint reviews, being responsive to questions emerging from the development process, and acting as a source of social, legal, and ethical knowledge within the project.

We have worked with interaction designers to ensure that the DEVELOP tool puts users in control of their privacy and how they share information with their colleagues.  We have worked with the system architects to ensure that its handling of personal information will be compliant with the forthcoming European data protection law. We are in the process of developing support material that will allow a deploying company to quickly and accurately conduct the mandatory Data Protection Impact Assessment on the DEVELOP tool.

DEVELOP is also a research project, and whilst some elements of the tool it is creating are made from existing components, other elements are very novel. Trilateral’s approach has, therefore, had to be adaptive, and able to explore potentially unknown elements.

The DEVELOP project approach can be widely generalised through technology development projects, both in research and in innovation more broadly. This approach is particularly suited to technology development projects in a complex, contested contexts (like the workplace!).

Contact the Policy, Ethics and Emerging Technology Team.

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