VIRT-EU is Values and Ethics in Responsible Technology in Europe – a European project funded by the Horizon 2020 program.
We are daily exposed to news telling creepy stories about smart objects gathering people’s data, yet such an unethical practice is widely left unaddressed for the sake of technology-led economic-growth. No one yet knows how to solve the challenges of ensuring ethical data practices in the way new technologies are designed. The EU has made significant legislative and advocacy efforts to address societal concerns brought about by technological innovation in data processing. Nevertheless, we lack practical guidelines and assessment procedures to embed ethical, social and data protection values in the design and development of data-intensive technologies and services.
VIRT-EU applies an interdisciplinary research approach to generate new knowledge and methods that aim to overtake the unproved assumption according to which technological development leaves no room for ethical and moral reasoning.
VIRT-EU aims to intervene at the point of design to foster ethical thinking among developers of IoT solutions. In fact, addressing social concerns in new technologies, not only impacts changes in regulatory regimes but also influences the process of imagining and developing the next generation of digital technologies within European clusters of creative innovation.
For these reasons VIRT-EU will develop actionable tools to encourage reflection among developers on the relationship between technological innovation and societal concerns, to enable a self-assessment of the ethical and social impact of the envisioned technologies.
The networked future promises new relationships between people and artifacts, the private and the public, the individual and the collective. The increased networking capabilities of pervasive technologies result in personal data being produced, analyzed, monetized and connected to other data streams in ways that hold both enormous potential and pose profound challenges for European society. Recent policy, such as the EU General Data Protection Regulation, reflects mounting public concerns around emerging data practices, responsible research and innovation (RRI), data ethics and privacy.
VIRT-EU addresses these concerns at the point of design through researching and intervening upon the development of cultures and ethics of the next-generation IoT innovators. We ask how do European IoT innovators and developers make ethically consequential decisions – about code, hardware, and data – for new connective devices? What assumptions about human behavior, privacy and freedom underpin European cultures of IoT innovation?
Our approach rests on the assumption that when designers of technologies talk to each other, debate and disagree about what tools to use and how to manage and respond to data, they negotiate and enact ethics. In this process they (as do we all) have the capacity to develop ethically from who they are to who they might ideally become. Our project seeks to identify and intervene in the ethical processes enmeshed in technological innovation, particularly addressing the Internet of Things (IoT) sensing technologies that collect and algorithmically process personal data.
Leveraging state of the art collaborative social science and humanities (SSH) and ICT methodological innovations, VIRT-EU will analyze and map the ethical practices of European hardware and software entrepreneurs, maker and hacker spaces, and community innovators. Our goals are (1) to identify and understand from a virtue ethics perspective the ethical and social values of these innovators as they consider data and human behavior, (2) to trace how these values manifest in design decisions and (3) to generate tools that enable ethical and social self-assessment procedures. To achieve this, we aim to develop the Privacy, Ethical and Social Impact Assessment (PESIA) framework and to co-design together with developers tools based on PESIA as well as existing legal and rights frameworks. The main objective of VIRT-EU is to affect the design and development processes of technological innovation by integrating PESIA tools with developer practices, resulting in better alignment with ethical and social values of EU citizens.
This research project brings together an impressive group of multi-disciplinary researchers ready to engage with socio-technical innovation practices in Europe and with the EU open data policy and regulatory frameworks. This project relies on data mining and quantitative social network analysis of online data produced by the IoT developer communities, ethnographic in-situ investigations of these communities, and design research produced jointly with these communities. These empirical efforts will be complemented by theoretical and legal research. This combination of “big data” or data-mining, qualitative research, and praxis-oriented design research with theoretical and legal investigations has innovative potential. The research from each of these methods informs the other. The objective of this mixed-method research design is to produce results that are more than the sum of the components of the different analyses.