Ethical Design Implications

For the second Interaction Design Studio project — creating a VA for an entity which does not currently have one — I am utilizing the design assets and perspectives of the city of Helsinki, Finland. I particularly wanted my group to focus on the urban environment as I have an interest in cities and service design so I jumped in on listing cities with interesting graphic identities before anyone else suggest a different topic. We ultimately settled on Helsinki because it has a detailed and engaging visual identity, and personally I had been to the city before and enjoyed it. Unrelated to this project but very much an interest of mine — Finland and Russia sharing a border means there is a lot of Russian-style architecture that can be enjoyed without actually having to go into Russia or a former USSR territory. Basically — as I was told — any Western movie which “takes place” in the USSR was shot in Helsinki.

The first half of the project involved attempting to incorporate the visuals and feeling of the Helsinki brand into a VA. Moving on, we wanted to focus on Helsinki’s much stated goal of becoming an ideal smart city. Stated in the city’s Design Finland Programme: Proposals for Strategy and Action, “In the public sector, design is used in the development of society and as a tool to promote well-being.” (23) We were particularly intrigued by how the city’s vision called for monitoring or altering products and interfaces, utilizing collected data, and real-time monitoring to help aging populations (73). The idea of social design as a collective working to improve infrastructure led us to focus on navigation issues with disabled populations.

Helsinki 2.0 has three scenarios. The first scenario, in a world with no smart VA tracking the upkeep of sidewalks, our actor, Joona, reaches a sidewalk which is impassable in his wheelchair, he must then backtrack, turn around, and take a different route. This scenario is meant to show the various inconveniences which burden the disabled, therefore justifying the importance of the product and furthermore why someone would choose to have this VA track their location.

In the second scenario, Emilia, a woman pushing a stroller, reaches another impassable sidewalk. Utilizing her VA, she notifies the city of the problem, takes a picture of the obstruction, and the VA thanks her for her help.

In the third scenario, we return to Joona who receives a notification on his watch about the obstructed sidewalk from scenario 2. Because of this information he asks for a new route to his destination, and furthermore asks the VA to reschedule the event because the new route will make him 15 minutes late.

Tying the two scenarios together, Emilia receives a thankful message from the VA, letting her know that because of her effort other users days are being made better because they are not having to encounter the sidewalk.

From these scenarios there can be two stakeholders directly implicated. The disabled (Joona) and the situationally disabled (Emilia). There are also indirect stakeholders, the city workers responsible for maintaining the sidewalks — including whomever may have caused the obstruction — and those who decide when and how obstructions can be made. Business owners and tenets who need functional sidewalks outside of their properties. Other stakeholders include those who are able bodied and not making reports or noticing sidewalk obstructions, and those who are able bodied but aware of mobility issues they may encounter.

Our hypothetical technology has the ability to make situations for stakeholders such as Joona and Emilia better, but as Friedman and Hendry spend many paragraphs discussing in Value Sensitive Design, these scenarios and the technology they introduce does not come without potential ethical trade offs.

In an attempt to simply lower daily frustrations, Joona is having his whereabouts continually tracked by a city’s VA device. His location will continually be available to the VA and likely his mobile phone OS. His value of privacy would be in conflict — perhaps to an uncomfortable extent. In addition to privacy perhaps his sense of autonomy is impacted. For the purpose of our assignment we assume this is worth being monitored but we cannot say how this reality might play out.

Emilia receives the satisfaction of knowing her small effort has made someone’s day better. However she is pushing a stroller both because we wanted to demonstrate how mobility issues affect many bodies of different abilities, and because we had a difficult time pinpointing how an able bodied individual would be continuously motivated to notice and report mobility obstructions.

A group member and I went on a few walks looking for potential mobility issues around Forbes and oh my fucking god they were everywhere. It would be a full time job reporting every single instance of obstruction or pot hole or construction barrier. Helper’s high is a documented motivation and in order to add a human element we added a thankful note when another user avoids the same barrier Emilia faced, however, once again the issue of privacy is relevant.

In an ideal world city workers would be aware and notice obstructions as they are made, perhaps taking steps to avoid them in the first place. Business owners/tenants would likely prefer no construction or obstructions take place directly outside their properties to begin with.

In the diagram submitted I attempt to show how stakeholders are involved with a sidewalk obstruction. The two direct stakeholders, the disabled and situationally disabled, are prevented from passing the obstruction. The unaware able bodied pass through the obstruction without noticing. Business owners in this scenario can also pass through without notice. City workers are directly on the obstruction signifying they should be aware and work to prevent instances as stewards of the city. Those who are able bodied and aware of mobility issues stop before the obstruction.

There is always the potential for ethical conflict when able bodied individuals attempt to design for the disabled. My group met with the director of disability services at CMU and she asked us — when this project ends, is that it? Do we go back to no longer caring about the way an individual with a disability navigates urban infrastructure? The next assignment I work on most likely will not involve mobility issues so will I stop noticing obstructions on Forbes?