The 9th episode of the series Building sustainable cities: the contribution of digital technology deals with guidelines and related ethical principles that apply to the design and application of digital technology.
One thing that keeps me awake at night is the speed at which artificial intelligence is developing and the lack of rules for its development and application said Aleksandra Mojsilović, director of IBM Science for Social Good. The European Union has a strong focus on regulations to ensure that technology is people-oriented, ensures a fair and competitive digital economy and contributes to an open, democratic and sustainable society. This relates to more than legal frameworks, also to political choices, ethical principles, and the responsibilities of the profession. This is what this post is about.
Politicians are ultimately responsible for the development, selection, application and use of (digital) technology. In this respect, a distinction must be made between:
• Coordination of digital instruments and the vision on the development of the city.
• Drawing up policy guidelines for digitization in general.
• Recognizing related ethical principles next to these policy guidelines.
• Creating the conditions for democratic oversight of the application of digital technology.
• Make an appeal to the responsibilities of the ICT professional group.
Guidelines for digitization policy
In the previous post I emphasized that the digital agenda must result from the urban policy agenda and that digital instruments and other policy instruments must be seen in mutual relation.
Below are five additional guidelines for digitization policy formulated by the G20 Global Smart Cities Alliance. 36 cities are involved in this initiative, including Apeldoorn, as the only Dutch municipality. The cities involved will elaborate these guidelines soon. In the meantime, I have listed some examples.
Equity, inclusiveness, and social impact
• Enabling every household to use the Internet.
• Making information and communication technology (ICT) and digital communication with government accessible to all, including the physically/mentally disabled, the elderly and immigrants with limited command of the local language.
• Assessing the impact of current digital technology on citizens and anticipating the future impact of this policy.
• Facilitating regular education and institutions for continuous learning to offer easily accessible programs to develop digital literacy.
• Challenging neighborhoods and community initiatives to explore the supportive role of digital devices in their communication and actions.
Security and resilience
• Developing a broadly supported vision on Internet security and its consequences.
• Mandatory compliance with rules and standards (for instance regarding IoT) to protect digital systems against cyberthreats.
• Becoming resilient regarding cybercrime by developing back-up systems that seamless take over services eventually.
• Building resilience against misuse of digital communication, especially bullying, intimidation and threats.
• Reducing the multitude of technology platforms and standards, to limit entry points for cyber attackers.
Privacy and transparency
• The right to move and stay in cities without being digitally surveilled, except in case of law enforcement with legal means.
• Establishing rules in a democratic manner for the collection of data from citizens in the public space.
• Minimalist collection of data by cities to enable services.
• Citizens' right to control their own data and to decide which ones are shared and under which circumstances.
• Using privacy impact assessment as a method for identifying, evaluating, and addressing privacy risks by companies, organizations, and the city itself.
Openness and interoperability
• Providing depersonalized data from as many as possible organizations to citizens and organizations as a reliable evidence base to support policy and to create open markets for interchangeable technology.
• Public registration of devices, their ownership, and their aim.
• Choosing adequate data architecture, including standards, agreements, and norms to enable reuse of digital technology and to avoid lock-ins.
Operational and financial sustainability
• Ensuring a safe and well-functioning Internet
• The coordinated approach ('dig once') of constructing and maintenance of digital infrastructure, including Wi-Fi, wired technologies and Internet of Things (IoT).
• Exploring first, whether the city can develop and manage required technology by itself, before turning to commercial parties.
• Cities, companies, and knowledge institutions share data and cooperate in a precompetitive way at innovations for mutual benefit.
• Digital solutions are feasible: Results are achieved within an agreed time, with an agreed budget.
The guidelines formulated above partly converge with the ethical principles that underlie digitization according to the Rathenau Institute. Below, I will summarize these principles.
• Citizens' right to dispose of their own (digital) data, collected by the government, companies and other organizations.
• Limitation of the data to be collected to those are functionally necessary (privacy by design), which also prevents improper use.
• Data collection in the domestic environment only after personal permission and in the public environment only after consent by the municipal council.
• The right to decide about information to be received.
• The right to reject or consent to independent decision making by digital devices in the home.
• No filtering of information except in case of instructions by democratically elected bodies.
• Ensuring protection of personal data and against identity theft through encryption and biometric recognition.
• Preventing unwanted manipulation of devices by unauthorized persons.
• Providing adequate warnings against risks by providers of virtual reality software.
• Securing exchange of data
• Ensuring public participation in policy development related to digitization
• Providing transparency of decision-making through algorithms and opportunity to influence these decisions by human interventions.
• Decisions taken by autonomous systems always include an explanation of the underlying considerations and provide the option to appeal against this decision.
• Using robotics technology mainly in routinely, dangerous, and dirty work, preferably under supervision of human actors.
• Informing human actors collaborating with robots of the foundations of their operation and the possibilities to influence them.
• Ensuring equal opportunities, accessibility, and benefits for all when applying digital systems
• If autonomous systems are used to assess personal situations, the result is always checked for its fairness, certainty, and comprehensibility for the receiving party.
• In the case of autonomous analysis of human behavior, the motives on which an assessment has taken place can be checked by human intervention.
• Employees in the gig economy have an employment contract or an income as self-employed in accordance with legal standards.
• The possibility of updating software if equipment still is usable, even if certain functionalities are no longer available.
• Companies may not use their monopoly position to antagonize other companies.
• Ensuring equal opportunities, accessibility, and benefits for all when applying digital systems.
The above guidelines and ethical principles partly overlap. Nevertheless, I have not combined them as they represent different frames of reference that are often referred to separately. The principles for digitization policy are particularly suitable for the assessment of digitization policy. The ethical principles are especially useful when assessing different technologies. That is why I will use the latter in the following episodes.
In discussing the digitalization strategy of Amsterdam and other municipalities in later episodes, I will use a composite list of criteria, based on both the above guidelines and ethical principles. This list, titled 'Principles for a socially responsible digitization policy' can already be viewed HERE.
Currently, many municipalities still lack sufficient competencies to supervise the implementation and application of the guidelines and principles mentioned above. Moreover, they are involved as a party themselves. Therefore, setting up an independent advisory body for this purpose is desirable. In the US, almost every city now has a committee for public oversight of digitization. These committees are strongly focused on the role of the police, in particular practices related to facial recognition and predictive policing.
Several cities in the Netherlands have installed an ethics committee. A good initiative. I would also have such a committee supervise the aforementioned policy guidelines and not just the ethical principles. According to Bart Wernaart, lecturer in Moral Design Strategy at Fontys University of applied sciences, such a committee must be involved in digitization policy at an early stage, and it should also learn from mistakes in the field of digitization in the past.
The latter is especially necessary because, as the Dutch Data Protection Authority writes, the identity of an ethically responsible city is, is not set in stone. The best way to connect ethical principles and practice is to debate and questions the implications of policy in practice.
Experts’ own responsibility
A mature professional group has its own ethical principles, is monitoring their implementation, and sanctioning discordant members. In this respect, the medical world is most advanced. As far as I know, the ICT profession has not yet formulated its own ethical principles. This has been done, for example, by the Institute of Electric and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) in the field of artificial intelligence. Sarah Hamid: Data scientists are generally concerned more with the abstract score metric of their models than the direct and indirect impact it can have on the world. However, experts often understand the unforeseen implications of government policy earlier than politicians. Hamid addresses the implications for professional action: If computer scientists really hoped to make a positive impact on the world, then they would need to start asking better questions. The road to technology implementation by governments is paved with failures. Professionals have often seen this coming, but have rarely warned, afraid of losing an assignment. Self-confident professionals must therefore say 'no' much more often to a job description. Hamid: Refusal is an essential practice for anyone who hopes to design sociotechnical systems in the service of justice and the public good. This even might result in a better relationship with the client and more successful projects.
Establishing policy guidelines and ethical principles for municipal digitization requires a critical municipal council and an ethics committee with relevant expertise. But it also needs professionals who carry out the assignment and enter the debate if necessary.
The link below opens a preliminary overview of the already published and upcoming articles in the series Building sustainable cities: the contribution of digital technology. Click HERE for the Dutch version.