6 November 2018

What is Ethical Coding and how to get involved

Three years ago I started thinking about work with meaning. Since then I had great discussions with peer Software Professionals about our social responsibility and ethics in software development. Today I am happy to present a guest post written by Kayleigh Alexandra, a content writer for Micro Startups, a site dedicated to spreading the word about startups. I like seeing a focus on ethical approaches in startups, i.e. Social entrepreneurship. Kayleigh Alexandra shares her ideas about ethical coding in this introductory article. For her latest startup news and inspiring stories, visit the Micro Startups blog or follow along on Twitter.

Ball Round Binary (Image credit: Pixabay)Technology provides amazing possibilities, but its power also makes it a threat. Almost everything we do relies on complex interactions of computer systems, with those systems running on code from countless distinct sources - you cannot trust one chunk of code to meet the same standard as another.

Unknown quality is not the only concern we can have about code, however. A function devised to achieve one thing can be extended and repurposed to do numerous other things - does not the developer bear some responsibility in how it is used? Those who share that sentiment argue for ethical coding, targeting a future of much broader social awareness. But what exactly does ethical coding involve, what are some relevant cases to consider, and how can you get involved in it? Let's take a look.

What does ethical coding involve?
Ethical coding involves acknowledging and acting upon the social responsibilities of a developer - factoring it alongside corporate responsibility - seeking to adhere to a set of meaningful values. It has becoming more prominent in recent years due to rising social awareness in general.

Because of the layer of abstraction between low-level source code and the consequences of the projects people work on, it is easy for everyone in a development company to absolve themselves of any culpability. Ethical coding requires the executive level to take ownership of the entire company output, committing to holding every last employee to a revised standard.

A developer with an ethical approach will think carefully about what her software will be used (or has been used) to achieve, and adjust course accordingly. They will also have strong thoughts about the general responsibilities of the software development industry, making them eager to advocate for higher standards and more transparency.

Since ethical stances vary wildly, though, there can be no precise definition of ethical coding - the best we can do is to use a broad ethical framework that loosely mirrors the societal standard for other fields such as medicine: minimising harm, being truthful, and making life better. See the Programming Ethical Guidelines by ACM and IEEE.

The rise of ethical software development
As noted, social awareness of the many issues that face the world continues to rise, driven by the 24/7 connectivity of the Internet and the move into adulthood of an ethically-conscious generation. For better or worse, social media users now act as moral guardians of sorts. Because technology in general plays a huge role in industry and the opaque nature of many coding projects is at odds with a desire for transparency, the tech world has attracted a lot of flak. This has led to various projects that have sought to demonstrate that technology can be a force for good, such as the following:
  • The Hummingbird Clock. In 2016, as part of the Liverpool Biennial, this timepiece was installed as a commentary on government corruption and to serve as a tool for the public. Set up as three binoculars looking upon the Town Hall, it actually records the hum of the electrical grid and streams it online - since the government has long used that hum for surveillance, this was to make it available to anyone. As a result, anyone in legal difficulty can now use the hum to verify the time and date of a particular recording.

  • The Empathy Deck. Social media can be brutal at times, deeply unpleasant and unempathetic, because being online and having some degree of anonymity drives people to embrace their darkest impulses. The Empathy Deck account was set up to respond to tweets with thought-provoking cards assembled from pieces of an artist's body of work, commenting on the perils of automation while providing some relevant musings and snippets of poetry to brighten someone's day.

  • Cody Rocky. To many, the world of technology still feels quite dry and alienating, which can limit the types of people who choose to pursue it as a career. Cody Rocky is a programmable robot designed to appeal to children, lending a degree of accessibility to the field and making learning both productive and entertaining. It also crosses slightly into the nascent field of digital companionship.
In light of some high-profile fiascos making people much more concerned about the dangers of technology (such as the Cambridge Analytica scandal, or the death caused by a self-driven car), the pressure on developers to implement ethics policies has increased significantly. There is also the thorny issue of so-called hacktivism - is hacking done for a good cause any less objectionable? Who gets to decide where to draw the line?

Though industry-wide ethical frameworks have been suggested before, there is so much more impetus on companies to be proactive now. In the coming years, I think it is fairly likely that it will become standard for software developers - well, any companies in the digital industry - to lay out and commit to their ethical codes.

How to get involved in ethical coding
If you are a developer and you want to get involved in ethical coding, then you can. It is actually fairly simple, with the following two major steps:
  • Code ethically. This is straightforward enough. Whenever you create applications, be keenly aware of any and all ethical issues that may arise as a result. For example credit everyone whose code you adapt, be efficient to avoid needlessly taxing a system, maintain professional integrity, and refrain from working on any project that you expect to be used irresponsibly or immorally. You cannot know every potential issue, but you can do your best.

  • Contribute to ethical projects. These can be your own, or existing projects that need help. This is not about your code, but about the goals of the project: for instance, you could volunteer some time for a healthcare-related project, or help out a charity with its operations. It does not cost much to start your own business these days, so it is easy for someone with good intentions to launch a startup, but it is much harder to make it a contender. Your support could be the key to a business getting big enough to do some real good.
Beyond that, the specifics are entirely up to you. It is really a matter of getting involved with online communities, finding people who share your values, and slowly discovering how you can best use your time to engage in ethical coding.

Ethical coding is only going to grow as a concern while massively-influential fields such AI or the IoT get larger. If you develop software and are strongly ethical, give a lot of thought to how you can better reconcile your beliefs with your work. There is no reason why you cannot have professional and personal contentment at the same time.

No comments: