Last year, co:census was named as a top ethical data collection solution in North America. For us, it was a moment of recognition based on our best practices for inclusive engagement and anonymous surveys. This moment also commemorated one of our key features, text message surveys, that allows institutions to gather feedback from their communities. As exciting as this moment was, it was our first step in the journey of applying ethics to our tech solutions.
Why we’ve committed to ethics
As a public interest tech company working with data, we’re very aware of how harmful some of our peers have become; Theranos shut down after it came to light that their blood testing product didn’t actually do what the company promised; Facebook and Twitter have come under rightful fire for not standing up against misinformation and being at least somewhat responsible for the political extremes we see today; Google has repeatedly fired their own Artificial Intelligence Ethicists after they’ve attempted to publish journals that suggest gender and race bias in some of Google’s AI.
Building a product and profit model that is ahead of the impending regulations to data and tech companies would be enough of a business reason to embed ethics in the fabric of our company. But for co:census, we have even more responsibility to be conscious of our ethics: our mission is to empower communities, and we can’t do that if we don’t use the data we collect from community members in a way that they would approve of. So we’re making ethical considerations central to how we grow our company and build our products by starting an Ethics Department, and we’re asking for external perspectives to help us build it.
Before we got to this stage, we went through a few iterations of what this next direction could look like for the organization and realized that we needed to be clear in what we stand for, so that we could always be working towards it.
Being clear in what we stand for
Step one on our ethics journey was identifying our fundamental ethical values. These are different from our team values, or our company mission and vision. Ethical values guide us in our decision-making when we add new team members, alter our org chart, change a workflow, or co-design a survey with a client.
- Ethical values need to be flexible enough to be interpreted differently as our society re-evaluates what is right and wrong
- Ethical values need to be specific enough to be operationalized across an organization
- Ethical values need to be directly related to company mission in order to provide guidance in reaching that goal in an ethical manner.
Defining Our Ethical Values
The process of defining our ethical values was iterative.
- We started by learning more: reading examples of where other ethics departments have succeeded and failed, learned more about ethical practices in other organizations, and even sent our employees to be trained on ethics in AI, building networks in the field of tech ethicists
- This happened in conjunction with circling feedback across the team: meeting in small groups and 1:1 sessions to review iterations of the values, implementing feedback, and seeking additional review when new information had been included
- Finally, we formalized the values by institutionalizing them in our practices: sharing out updates at team-wide meetings, and embedding the final product into our onboarding process with the opportunity to provide feedback embedded even there.
Our ethical values: Liberty, Humanity, Nuance
This process led us to identify the following foundational values that will align us toward empowering communities as our institution grows, and as we develop our own ethics department, frameworks, processes and procedures.
This is just the beginning for us
These values will be our guardrails as we grow our company and build products that empower communities, but it’s just the beginning. We know that being an ethical company is a long-term commitment that will take genuine effort on the part of every single employee, and even sometimes our clients and customers. That’s why we’re building out a department that can help us center these values in everything from how we govern the data we collect to individual steps in our research processes.
If you see a weak link in the thinking we’ve laid out here, please let us know! We’re genuinely committed to this effort, and are ready to hear about the holes that we’ve missed so that we can address them.
If you want to learn more about our process or our ethical values, schedule time with our founder here.