Thursday, February 26, 2015

Re-use ill-considered (twitter and hypothermia)

I've been reading a lot about ethics recently for a forthcoming workshop in Oxford on the topic.
It seems that a lot of the book keeping elements of ethics have been defined (I guess, perhaps, in reaction to the lamentably long list of unethical things that are done by all and sundry in online media commercial appropriation of the essence of you, and dodgy medical research re-owning folk knowledge on drugs from rainforest eco-systems, or testing stuff on people who have no political or economic choices...

So there's a long list of stuff we (as researchers) have to go through.....

but it seems to me that quite near the top of the list ought to be something about re-use

In computing (and in general in engineering), re-use of stuff (re-cycling harware, and re-cycling good ideas, or software) is regarded as a good thing - rep-purposing too - the internet came out of dual-use (re-purposing a survivable defense network, as a cheap extnesive global communications utility for the public)...

but the real elephant in the room for me is re-use of stuff in a new context without ethical consideration.

Let me give two examples (from the title of this post)

1/ someone (NOT ill-advisedly) tweets that, unless the snow in an airport is cleared soon, he will blow it up. This is a daft joke which maybe to his friends is funny coz he's that sort of a guy.
That's not the problem. THe problem is that it got re-tweeted or forward to the police - whoever did that, did they stop to consider the original intent. Or was this thoughtless? or possibly even malicious? why did the police not regard this as potentially a "crank call"? were they not wasting police time

2/ research on hypothermia received a boost from the Nazi doctors trying stuff out on people in concentration camps. The research actually turned out to be useful. Should we deny ourselves the benefit, despite the awful provenance of the results?

Some of this can be reduced (in a classic reductionist manner) by looking at cost-benefit tradeoffs. What are the risks the tweet really is a bad guy? what are the chances that if we use the nazi medical results, someone will start a land war with russia, to aid in their drug discovery programme?
How much extra work do we have to do to make deciding the right way about the incentives, or the re-use of results?

Why do I care?

Well, its clear that many open, public-minded people constrain themselves from doing potentially valuable research by setting barriers before working out the cost-benefit/incentive balance, whilst at the same time, a lot of industry just goes ahead and does it, and fixes things up after the event.
Is there a middle ground?

I'm suggesting that considering re-use and the safeguards one should put in place for that, might give a way to evaluate whether something is ethically acceptable or no.

It could also serve by offering "re-use cases" which might be easier to explain to people as part of the "informed consent" steps of any ethical experimental design.

As more pressure is put on us to do work with larger and larger data sets (whether the GCHQ surveillance data, or police crime/geo-loc data, or NHS we need to figure this out soonest.

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