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RRI focused Ethical Hackathons to promote improved design

Computer Scientists are usually familiar with the hackathon – a fun event in which teams compete to meet a technical design challenge. Over the past year Professor Marina Jirotka, Dr Helena Webb and Dr Menisha Patel in the Human Centred Computing theme have been working to develop an event that takes a novel twist on the hackathon. This is an RRI focused Ethical Hackathon – a design challenge that highlights ethical issues alongside technical ones.

Background: the social and ethical effects of computing technologies

Although it has long been recognised that computing technologies have social and ethical effects, a gap remains in practice between ethicists and social scientists on the one hand, and computer scientists and engineers on the other. Both groups tend to work independently, acknowledging the relevance of each other’s work whilst few opportunities exist to incorporate ethical or social reflection into system development in order to design better, more responsible technologies. As part of our focus on Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI), Marina Jirotka and the HCC team have explored ways to integrate ethical and societal considerations into the processes and products of research and innovation in ICT. Through these activities the idea of a novel kind of Ethical Hackathon has emerged. Our Ethical Hackathons have an explicit RRI element; they require collaboration between computer scientists, engineers, ethicists and social scientists in order to address ethical issues arising from ICT as a problem solving activity.

What is an RRI focused Ethical Hackathon?

Our RRI focused Ethical Hackathons take the form of a fun challenge in which teams compete against each other. Teams are interdisciplinary and may include computer scientists, social scientists, engineers, business students, ethicists and others. They are given a design task that requires them to consider the social and ethical implications of the particular technology involved alongside technical ones. For instance, they might consider questions such as:

- Does the technology risk causing harm to users and other individuals?

- Will it decrease user autonomy or undermine privacy?

- Will users have the opportunity to determine for themselves how the technology will fit into their day-to-day lives?

The teams are challenged to identify novel and creative solutions to these potential problems and to find ways to embed ethical considerations into their designs. Teams are required to present their final designs and explain how they considered social and ethical issues, and how such reflection influenced the resulting design. Depending on the task, teams might produce a design document, mock up or prototype. Their work is judged by a panel of experts and prizes are given to the winning teams.

You can find more information about one of our recent Ethicons here