An Ethical Decision Support Tool: Improving the Identification and Response to the Ethical Dimensions of Software Projects

Don Gotterbarn


Software projects have ethical dimensions that need to be identified in order to minimize negative ethical issues and promote positive ethical values. A Software Development Impact Statement (SoDIS) can be used to help accomplish this task. This paper examines: the concept of a software development impact statement, the implementation of a decision support tool to aid in producing a SoDIS, the strengths and weaknesses of automating this process, including what was revealed about different ethical decision models, and the effectiveness

The problem:

The development, delivery, and use of computing artifacts have significant ethical, professional, and societal consequences. Although the negative consequences of deploying software have been documented, the occurrence of such consequences has, mistakenly, been treated as haphazard. The recognizable causes for many of these consequences actually originate in the software management and development process. There is a need to proactively identify these root causes and to develop an ethical decision support model whose use will increase the probability of the positive affects and decrease the probability of the negative affects. The positive and negative ethical impacts of software will continue until their underlying causes are understood and an ethical decision support tool is developed and dispersed.

Solution background:

Simon Rogerson and I developed the concept of a Software Development Impact Statement (SoDIS) as a model which can be used to identify the ethical dimensions of a software development project and to identify ways to mediate the potential negative consequence of that project. (Rogerson & Gotterbarn)

Shneiderman (1990) introduced the concept of a social impact statements to bring public participation into technology design. Huff and Jawer (1994) narrowed the application of this concept to participatory design in software development. Rogerson and Gotterbarn have developed the concept of a Software Development Impact Statement which can be effectively used to focus attention on the ethical issues associated with each stage of the software development process.

Like an environmental impact statement, the most significant aspects of the software development impact statement is the process of developing the statement and what is discovered in developing the final statement. The software development impact statement is both a process and a product. The SoDIS uses a stakeholder analysis model to address the ethical dimensions of a project. Once stakeholders are identified, a developer needs to examine both the stakeholder\x{FFFD}s rights and the developers obligations to the stakeholder. The logical feasibility of this approach was tested with positive results in Gotterbarn=s classes in the U.S.

With the support of a National Science Foundation Grant work continued on the examination of the SoDIS principles and the development of a decision support tool. Results thus far include: the development of a formalized structure of the model which facilitates identification of negative ethical issues, and the development and testing of a working prototype which implements many of the features of the original SoDIS model.

The goal of the SoDIS process is to identify significant ways in which the completion of individual software development tasks may negatively affect stakeholders and to identify additional project tasks needed to prevent any anticipated problems. The SoDIS process uses a review of the software project plan to detect any potential social, professional, or ethical issues, concerns, or consequences related to the project.

The SoDIS process consists of four basic steps: (1) the identification of the immediate and extended stakeholders in a project, (2) the identification of the tasks or work breakdown packages in a target project, (3) for every task, the identification and recording of potential ethical issues violated by the completion of that task for each stakeholder, and (4) the recording of the details and solutions of significant ethical issues which may be related to individual tasks and an examination of whether the current task needs to be modified or a new task created in order to address the identified concern.

The SoDIS analysis process helps identify every task where there is a potential ethical issue compromised for some stakeholder caused by the completion of that task. For each stakeholder identified, a SoDIS analysis is completed for each project task. The SoDIS analysis is built around a questionnaire that considers five ethical principles which should be applied to every project.

The paper and tool demonstration will evaluate the ethical decision model used in the tool, discuss the limitations and strengths of automating an ethical decision making process, and how to provide guidance for those who need to evaluate ethical arguments. The development and use of a process and tool like this is required if software developers are regularly to create ethically sensitive software.