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As we watch digital technologies shaping personal, social and organizational aspects of human life, we also witness their embroilment in software scandals and questionable ‘smart’ practices aimed at people’s emotions and values at an unprecedented scale and precision. Values in Computing (ViC) thinks that we should stop considering values as “mushy stuff“. Instead,  we should start treating them as first class citizens in decision making processes, especially when it comes to computing.

ViC is best described as a bundle of activities and people, who are changing the focus of computing research from understanding how digital technologies may change people’s lives to understanding  how digital technologies come to life. Ultimately,  we work together to support the next generation of computing professionals with the deliberative, technical, and critical skills necessary to tell the difference between what is worth  – in research, education, government, and industry – from what is potentially harmful to self and society.

This commitment lead to a range of research activities, including a  successful EPSRC UK grant “Values First Software Engineering (SE)”, investigating values in software production. The project is young,  the problems are old, yet the nature of such problems are transformed by scale. Below some of the challenges that we are trying to address.

Broad challenges:
  • As  reckless user profiling activities show, computational techniques are widely used to effectively – or at least ‘believably’ –  tap into (quantify, label) human deepest held values. Instead of people’s, we are currently looking into how ‘software personas’ can be identified, articulated and investigated.
  • In particular, we argue that automated techniques could be used to extract and study values at scale’ . Our research is exploring how values profiling can shift from the individuals to institutions and corporations.
  • Key questions remain on how computing researchers, developers, educators, organizations and the general public can sharpen the ‘critical, technical, and deliberative skills’ necessary to tell what values are worth pursuing from those that are potentially harmful to self and society.
  • Finally, we need to better understand how tech research and industry can be made accountable of their actions when found in flagrant breach of the ‘social contract’. We are awash with data-backed evidence of such breaches, yet the ‘gap between evidence and accountability’ seems to get wider.
Directions

Our starting point is that,“values are the facts of the future”, and that it is possible to take a systematic approach to their study and representation in software production. A key outcome from CHI2017 workshop – a turning point for ViC – was The Denver Manifesto,  which we set out some key principles and guidelines for a  shift in the way responsibilities in computing-related disciplines are taught, learned, deliberated and practiced in both industry and academia.

Some may be skeptical of manifestos. Still,  the effort that went into agreeing upon every word of the document is a testament of how difficult and important is to be sharing common reference points in this highly subjective field of understanding. The manifesto has acted as a touchstone for the Values-First SE project  at Lancaster University. These are the specific questions that are currently guiding our research:

Specific Questions
  • How can values be systematically studied in software production/SE?
  • What existing values-mapping methods can be used/adapted to SE?
  • How does investigating values in SE differ from other fields?
  • What values are specific to SE/ software industry?
  • What approaches (i.e. computationally intensive, qual/ quant, etc.) can be used to capture and talk  about values?

This blog reports, reflects, and questions the research activities, mistakes, errands and findings of our research team and related work.

Credits

Blog  photo : “22,500” by Hadieh Shafie, courtesy of The V&A Museum Collection.