Teaching Information Integrity – an ethical approach

Phil Clipsham, Dave Chadwick and Andrew Stanley


Maintaining integrity of data during information processing is a problem throughout industry. The current emphasis in teaching and research into ensuring information integrity is on the technical aspects of systems development. These include look at the occurrence of errors in programming, hardware and software security, encryption and hashing algorithms. All of these are considered to be essential in ensuring safe and accurate information.

Although these issues are important, there is still a real problem of information and data integrity which lies with the end user and the type of systems used. Little research has been done on the security and integrity of end user applications such as spreadsheets and small, single-user databases. Lack of formality in the design of these systems lead to errors occurring and remaining undetected, There is a difficulty with auditing data and information in single user systems and, in particular, spreadsheets. This leads to weak information and an easy opportunity for unscrupulous end users to carry out fraudulent activity. A key problem is that, as systems developers, we are concentrating on ‘how to do things correctly’ but ignoring ‘how to avoid doing this incorrectly’

This paper suggests that the systems developer needs to be made aware of the information integrity pitfalls and dangers in the development of end user systems. This should not be considered as an ‘add on extra’ but should be an integral part of the development of any end user system. The University of Greenwich believes that by making students aware of information integrity problems at an early stage will instil good systems building practice in the future.

A fundamental part of this approach is the way systems development is taught to students. Rather than taking a traditional view of systems development teaching, with separate strands of programming and systems analysis, students are taken through the complete systems development life cycle. This allows for easy identification of areas where problems might occur. Students are also allowed to dissect already built systems to discover for themselves some of the information integrity problems.

Research carried out at the University of Greenwich into the development of spreadsheets and small database applications has identified common errors made by end users in industry and by university students whilst learning. This has led to the creation of a set of methods/tools which can be used in the development of end user systems

The University believes that all students should be aware of the wider implications of the technical skills they may later apply in industry. Through its Systems Building approach it has provided, not only an integrated approach to the teaching of technical skills, but has concentrated on issues in three pertinent areas:

  1. Accuracy of data and Information encompassing issues of fidelity and accuracy.
  2. Security and computer misuse issues
  3. Ensuring social values are properly addressed

To complement this approach the University of Greenwich has also developed an ethical and human factors strand which is available to all undergraduate students taking computing and information systems courses. This set of units includes issues of security, the law and social impact of information technology. By incorporating these units into the syllabus, students are provided with an ethical framework for the development of end user systems.