In the last few years, the idea that there are some big concerns about the impact of technology on people and the planet has been slowly creeping into the awareness of those who work in the technology sector.
At the same time, organizations have been developing principles, frameworks and tools to help make technology and data practices more responsible and ethical.
In early 2021, Consequential, alongside the Open Data Institute (ODI), conducted a short, qualitative research project to explore the impact of these tools in supporting a vision of a world where tech and data works for everyone.
This research showed some of the broad shapes and patterns of the tech and data ecosystem and its relationships to these tools at this moment. We found that adoption of these tools is ‘in the chasm’. This refers to Geoffrey Moore’s technology adoption lifecycle, or the transition from the early market into the mainstream eye. Crossing the chasm is the leap from being a new, little-known and exploratory product to mass adoption and well-known status.
If we’re in the chasm, what’s happening as we try to cross it?
In our interviews, we heard the same observations and themes from many actors and vantages, pointing towards some shifts within the tech and data ethics ecosystem. These shifts represent many challenges and opportunities for those who are trying to create the next generation of tech and data ethics tools and for those who want to be ethical and responsible in building technology:
- From individual drivers to systemic drivers of ethical behaviour. Early adopters are passionate individuals, but do not represent consistent levers for change. Many have recognized this in working or experimenting with embedding data ethics tools, and have found that without systemic drivers change can only go so far or so deep. This has led many in the ethics field to start to find these systemic levers and to create and address long-term incentives for change.
- From proliferation to polish of tech and data ethics tools.
During the early adoption phase, many experts created tech and data ethics tools and frameworks, leading to a range of approaches as a natural part of an emerging field. Many of these early tools were experiments or prototypes. Now it seems that as part of this shift, people are starting to revisit these early creations or to create new ones, informed by the lessons of the first generation. There are more standards and certifications in the space than ever before, and people are tackling the question of ‘what good looks like’.
- From ethics in tech and data to governance of tech and data.
Many sectors don’t engage with the ethics conversation, but pay a lot of attention to governance and regulation. As businesses large and small are reconsidering the role they play in society more broadly, governance – or how businesses are guided and managed – has become a critical issue. The question for many will be what may get lost in this shift, and how ethics can become integrated into governance.
- From broad ethical principles to specific ethical practices. Organizations that want to be ethical are faced with the challenge of turning general ethical principles into specific practices within their business. With the incredible range of industries, sectors, sizes of businesses and cultures, solutions for ethical issues need to be heavily contextualized.
In our full presentation we explore these shifts in more depth, and look at some of the possible challenges and opportunities that exist for tech and data ethics tools within these shifts. We also explore what lessons have been learned from early adopters and the creators of the first generation of tech and data ethics tools, and how these lessons can help to shape the next generation.
As technologists, we’ve become aware of the need to build open, trustworthy tech and data systems that unlock positive and lasting social benefits. Now we need to design the next generation of data ethics tools to help us do this, and use them as part of our everyday practice.