Ethics in data project design: It’s about planning

Anna Lauren Hoffmann at O’Reilly: “When I explain the value of ethics to students and professionals alike, I refer it as an “orientation.” As any good designer, scientist, or researcher knows, how you orient yourself toward a problem can have a big impact on the sort of solution you develop—and how you get there. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “perception is not whimsical, but fatal.” Your particular perspective, knowledge of, and approach to a problem shapes your solution, opening up certain paths forward and forestalling others.

Data-driven approaches to business help optimize measurable outcomes—but the early planning of a project needs to account for the ethical (and in many cases, the literal) landscape to avoid ethically treacherous territory. Several recent cases in the news illustrate this point and show the type of preparation that enables a way to move forward in both a data-driven and ethical fashion: Princeton Review’s ZIP-code-based pricing scheme, which turned out to unfairly target Asian-American families, and Amazon’s same-day-delivery areas, which neglect majority-Black neighborhoods.

You can approach a new project using a road trip analogy. The destination is straightforward—profit, revenue, or another measurable KPI. But the path you take to get there will need to be determined. If my wife and I, for example, want to drive from our apartment in Oakland (Point A) to visit my wife’s sister in Los Angeles (Point B), we have to figure out how we’d like to approach the trip. If we’re concerned primarily with efficiency, certain questions immediately come to the fore, namely: what’s the fastest route to LA? Determining the fastest route requires us to pay attention to certain features of the possible trip, such as traffic speeds, easily accessible gas stations, and traffic conditions.On the other hand, if my wife and I are interested in taking the most scenic route from Oakland to LA, a whole different set of concerns become salient. Gas stations are likely still relevant, but speed is less of a factor. We’ll also want to take into account things like notable landmarks and towns (and my tendency toward car sickness) along the way.

The destination is the same; the laws we have to abide by are the same, but how we get from Point A to Point B, then, is heavily determined by how we orient ourselves toward the trip in the first place.

The same goes for research or design projects: how you orient yourself or your team toward solving certain problems or achieving certain goals will fundamentally shape the journey you take. If you’re interested in reaching a goal as quickly as possible—if your only concern is speed or turnaround time—a particular set of concerns are going to be salient. But if you’re interested in reaching a goal not only efficiently but ethically, then a different set of concerns will pop up….(More)”