What makes software ‘ethical’?

Reply

Challenge

Reply is a design studio that works to create digital products and services that have a positive social change. Reply works to create an ecosystem of good practice and support that helps others to do the same.

Ethical concerns around data treatment are becoming increasingly relevant for businesses but as ethics of software is an emerging topic, there are currently no standard guidelines for the ethical use of data. In particular, while general principles of responsible procurement are enshrined in laws, standards and best practices, there is no widely accepted ethical software assessment framework to date. This is a challenge for software creators who want to create or market their digital products as ethical in a comparable way, and for consumers who want to compare software’s ethical credentials and make consistent responsible procurement decisions.

Research team 
  • Ben Wills-Eve, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, The University of Lancaster
  • Chris Rhodes, School of Arts, Languages and Cultures, Faculty of Music, The University of Manchester
  • Dr Dmitry Dereshev, School of Social Sciences, Faculty of Humanities, The University of Manchester
Solution

The Research Team delivered a comprehensive review of existing ethics assessment frameworks from academic literature and professional practice with a focus on software, identifying companies behind the assessment tools, comparing existing frameworks and delivering recommendations for software-specific ethics assessment criteria. The Team provided final recommendations of how to either adopt an existing software ethics framework or create a new one which is fit for Reply’s specific needs.

Impact

Both the academic literature and professional practice considered privacy, transparency, and data protection as ‘ethical’ values for software. Professional practice further focused on environmental sustainability, corporate governance, market position, and human/worker rights. Academic literature focused on accountability, autonomy, beneficence and nonmaleficence.

In practice, the research found that companies rather than individual software could be assessed. The frameworks either assessed a broad, non-software-specific range of factors or only focused on data-related ethics, but none did both. Ethics scoring frameworks considered community volunteering, while rating only the most popular companies and brands in their geographic region, while also inviting companies to apply to be scored. This means that large, popular, public companies that generate substantial revenues are much more likely to be scored. Most companies of interest to Reply, however, were not scored and are unlikely to be scored based on inclusion criteria of existing frameworks. Where companies were scored, the scores for the same company varied widely depending on the framework and the factors assessed. 

This research provided Reply with both more insight into how existing ethics scoring frameworks work and a set of recommendations on how to develop their own ethics scoring framework in the future.

What participants are saying

We’re a small, ethical driven design studio that works with charities, and we have limited resources, so this project has brought a lot of value to us that we otherwise may not have been able to afford. The output of this research project will play a valuable role in our exploration of the feasibility and market appetite for a product/tool/platform to help organisations make more responsible and ethical tech procurement choices. It was also a pleasure to participate in such a collaborative process throughout the [Collaboration Labs] programme, and the research team were extremely responsive and clearly well skilled with the work they delivered being of such a high quality.

Jonny Rae-Evans
Reply Director

The opportunity to learn about research consultancy has been a highlight, working with a partner in industry and seeing how research can differ in a more applied setting. It has been really interesting to see how discussion around ethical issues in the technology sector occurs outside of academia and how research can play a role in this area. In fact, as a result of the skills and experience gained during the programme I have secured a full-time position working within research at a charitable organisation, so the experience is definitely worthwhile and can be incredibly helpful career-wise.

Ben Wills-Eve
The University Of Lancaster

This project was founded by the Economic and Social Research Council, in collaboration with the North West Consortium Doctoral Training Partnership and the School of Arts, Languages and Cultures at the University of Manchester, as part of the Collaboration Labs programme.