With the advent of mainstream IoT devices, a sensor on a device may give a user feedback in the form of a raw number that reflects something about the state of their environment. If the user takes this information at face-value, they may start to think less about the device providing the feedback and focus instead on the number itself. This shift in attention is important because overlooking the device or system that provides feedback suggests that how data is handled and any algorithms used to process the data are also being overlooked. The failure to consider these underlying interactions can result in unintended risks.
Take the example of the use of algorithms to create risk assessment scores that rate a defendant’s risk of committing future crime. Now widespread in the US justice system, these risk assessments were recently the subject of an indepth investigation by ProPublica, an independent newsroom producing investigative journalism in the public interest.¹⁸ In 2014, the US Attorney General raised concerns that these scores could be introducing bias to the courts (where they are used to inform decisions on bail, sentencing, and probation). This algorithmic process has been shown to be unreliable in forecasting certain kinds of crime. In fact, in an instance investigated by ProPublica, based on the risk scores assigned to over 7,000 people arrested in a single Florida county in 2013 and 2014, the algorithm used was little more reliable than tossing a coin in its ability to accurately identify re-offenders.
With analytics and machine learning, algorithms can be trained to notice where there has been customer upset, and bring it to the attention of a real human—in other words, detecting that harm may have been done and bringing it to the attention of developers and other stakeholders. On social media, sentiment analysis (a set of tools and practices which deconstruct written language and user behaviors to detect mood) could be used to identify situations where a piece of data shared about a user is causing emotional (and potentially physical) harm. Take the example of a user of a social network uploading a picture of another user and “tagging” them in that picture. If that second user starts reacting negatively in comment threads or receiving negative messages from others, machine learning could identify these situations and escalate them to moderators, presenting an opportunity for that user to “untag” themselves or request removal of the photograph in question. Such an approach could go further by then alerting developers and other business teams to consider such scenarios in their user personas and user stories for subsequent app updates, consent and permissions management approaches. This secondary feedback is key in making sure lessons learned are acted upon and that the appropriate corrective action is taken.
Monitoring data transformations through user interviews
Interviewing users who have experienced harm can uncover misunderstandings in the way users are perceiving or using applications. This is not placing the blame on users, but can rather be used to determine areas where better communication may be required. Noticing where users say that a use or disclosure of data was not appropriate is a form of qualitative forensics which can be linked to other, quantitative approaches like behavioral analytics. When users see an app or service that feels uncomfortable, that’s an indication that consent may not be in place. But information about this discomfort rarely reaches developers or business stakeholders unless they cultivate—and systematize—curiosity about and empathy for users.
In order to think critically and spot potential harms to users, employees must have a working knowledge of how data moves and is transformed, how data (and users) are threatened by cyber-security breaches, and what end-users expected and consented their data could be used for. This goes for IT stakeholders, but also employees in general, given the increasingly digital nature of corporations across entire companies. Regularly updating the shared “world view” of the organization with both direct and analytics-sourced input from users is an important first step. Once it’s been taken, it can be followed by creating feedback loops into the software development process from both human and machine sources.
This will enable empathy for users to be systematized into actionable updates of practices and programming.
Forensic analysis of data breaches is becoming more commonplace when data holders experience cyberattacks; similar methods can be used to track data through various servers and applications to determine where personally identifying data might be vulnerable to disclosure, or has been processed in a way contrary to the intent of the user or designers. However, most organizations are not yet prepared to track data well enough to discover, much less mitigate, harms to users.
Continual discovery of potential harms
Google is faced with a conundrum: if its machine-learning discovers that a user may have a medical condition, based on what that user is searching for, is it ethical to tell the user? Or unethical? A recent article by Fast.co Design explored this concept:¹⁹
“If Google or another technology company has the ability to spot that I have cancer before I do, should it ethically have to tell me? As complicated as this question sounds, it turns out that most experts I asked—ranging from an ethicist to a doctor to a UX specialist—agreed on the solution. Google, along with Facebook, Apple, and their peers, should offer consumers the chance to opt-in to medical alerts.”
Such conundrums are not limited to search results, but the uniquely personal (and potentially emotionally and physically harmful) impact of medical analytics is still a nascent conversation that neither healthcare providers nor technology companies are fully prepared to enter into—yet.
Leaders can learn from Google’s example by creating ways for end-users, “observers” (in this case, medical professionals and other researchers), developers, and executives to discover potential harms—even after product launches.