Thursday, May 01, 2008

Embedding Ethics as Deliberative Acts in Software Development

The afternoon session of the 2008 conference on the ethical governance of ICT, in Canberra got down to the details of teaching ethics to ICT people. Associate Professor Craig McDonald, talked about how ethics is included in ICT courses at the University of Canberra by embedding ethics as deliberative acts in software development. I wondered if this was just using software engineering terms to make ICT people feel more comfortable with ethics.

I had to look up
"deliberative", to see the meaning; the best I could find was: "A discourse in which a question is discussed, or weighed and examined". An example of its use is in Deliberative democracy. Craig then went on to discuss "Governance", using the example of the "governor" on a steam engine. He then contrasted the CPA's model of governance, which said it was something done at upper levels of the organization and argued that it is done at all levels.

Craig argued that organizations should be designed so that people can exercise appropriate governance at all level in the organization. This worried me as it would provide an excuse for an ICT professional to say that they were not responsible for their actions because their organization did not give them that decision making ability.

However, since the
Nuremberg Trials in 1945, it has been established that professionals, such as doctors, are not absolved for criminal actions simply because they were following orders. An extreme case of this, which I have used in teaching ethics to ICT students is Tsunami warning systems. The failure of "Life-critical systems" which could result in millions of deaths may result and could result in the ICT professionals at fault being charged with crimes against humanity.

Next is Ms Marghanita da Cruz, Principal Consultant Ramin Communications Pty Ltd
( on "No duty of Care: the Governance of ICT". This discussed the Austrlaian Standrad AS8015 "ICT Governance", which
Marghanita described as being about "telling non-ICT people what to do" and "taking IT into a business context". She suggested that such standards should encourage ICT people to say what can be done, rather than what can't be done.

Professor Shirley Gregor, Director National Centre for Information Systems Research at ANU discussed Ethics education of ICT professionals. Shirley is also responsible for the ACS's Body of Knowledge (BOK), which sets down what should be in university courses in ICT. She pointed out that ethics is one of the few parts of the BOK which is mandatory for all universities to include in their courses. We then went around the room discussing the practicalities of how to instill value sets, make it credible, practical, without imposing personal value systems.

One interesting point is that Professor Gregor pointed out that IT people, and males in particular, may have a different view of ethics to the rest of the population. She posited that Kohlberg's stages of moral development were developed based on research exclusively with males. Perhaps ICT should recruit more females to have a more ethical profession. ;-)

Professor Gregor asked how students are taught ethics in practice. It turns out that I teach some of her students ethics, in ANU computer science courses:
With these ethics are incorporated in computer courses, use ACS and other professional bodies codes as examples, and use the results of ACS/ARC/CAPPE ethics research.

David Lindley, Academic Principal, ACS Education, Australian
Computer Society discussed Educating for Professionalism. The ACS is looking to use the
Skills Framework for the Information Age ( SOFIA ).

The last presentation was by
Mr. Neville Holmes, University of Tasmania on An Ethical Imperative for the Computing Profession. Neville writes entertainingly provocative and thought provoking columns in IEEE Computer magazine. In his presentation he emphasized the human and multidisciplinary aspects of the computing profession. He argued that he preferred reading Jane Austin, the book, rather than the BBC TV adaption (I preferred Joe Wright's adaption of Pride and Prejudice). Mores seriously I was not convinced of this argument, as a book is just a form of information technology which is so old it seems natural, but it is not, it places machinery between the author and the reader. In the extreme case it is now not possible to distinguish between human written text and that generated by computers.

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