The Digital Fund
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The Digital Fund

Responsible Technology in Civil Society: what does that mean in practice?

A view from our cohort of Digital Fund grantholders

The Digital Fund, tech and civil society

One part of the ambition for the Digital Fund and support partners we have contracted is to help forge a new social contract between tech and civil society. This means funding and supporting technology that can impact the lives of many for the better, and also developing understanding together on what ‘responsible technology’ actually means in practice. One of our support partners, Doteveryone, the “responsible technology think-tank”, is supporting Digital Fund grantees on this journey.

It’s important we do this work because the default behaviour of technology does not always put the humans it serves at the centre. Technology as a tool is, in theory, amoral and unbiased — but biases start to get baked in as early as when an engineer is developing the software. Algorithms prioritise different kinds of behaviours, work better for different kinds of users — and simple things like how the user experience is designed can drastically bias who is able to use that technology and who is not (as a simple example — think of people with disabilities like visual impairments who are not able to use a great deal of modern day digital tools).

The Digital Fund cohort

Each month, Digital Fund grantholders engage in a process of reflection, learning and insight around a particular theme. For April, the theme has been “Responsible Technology” and has included a webinar panel discussion, individual conversations and written reflections prompted by a survey for grantholders.

At the Digital Fund, we have funded a range of projects, some of which with technology at the centre and some of which are about innovating with digital technology and practices to support a shift to being more future-fit. One question we have been asking is: What does it mean to be an innovator funded by public money? Compared to the more familiar innovation that happens at the tech centre of the world, Silicon Valley, the incentives, priorities and accountabilities may look very different.

This blogpost

So therefore — we have Responsible Technology as our inquiry this month. And in this blogpost, we bring together the reflection and sense-making that has happened in the following ways:

April webinar on “Responsible Technology and Consequence Scanning” with Best Beginnings, Open Food Network, Carefree and Doteveryone

The question is, how can you recognise responsible technology, and what are the criteria? To start with, we will cover a bit more about what Consequence Scanning is as a methodology for context. Then below you will find a detailed discussion on what we believe constitutes “Responsible Technology” having surveyed our 29 grantholders.

Consequence Scanning

The Doteveryone “Consequence Scanning” practice helps understand unintended consequences

When creating a new technology or innovation, it is impossible to exactly predict its impact as it enters the world. The world is a complex system — made up of people, other technologies, tools, behaviours, and relationships between them, and therefore it’s impossible to predict the outcome in a linear way.

Instead of prediction, we can utilise a practice of scanning the horizon and foresight. Over the past few months, all of our grantholders have gone through a “Consequence Scanning” (CS) workshop with Doteveryone, which trains innovators to consider consequences of their products on people and society. The CS methodology has been translated into an agile practice — a 45 minute fast and focused event to allow people to use it throughout their development process.

A nice and simple diagram to help you understand Consequence Scanning

CS is a practice in long-term thinking and maximising diverse perspectives on a team to scan the horizon for consequences. It is centred on the three following questions:

  1. What are the intended and unintended consequences?
  2. What are the positive consequences we want to focus on?
  3. What are the consequences we want to mitigate?

It also allows a clarity of thinking around intended consequences of the new technology or innovation, which are as important to get clear on as the thinking about unintended consequences. This is really about designing with intent. In other words: what are you setting out to do with your technology? This may sound simple, and Alex from Doteveryone likes to say that CS can be “easy to learn, difficult to master”.

Consequence Scanning and other methodologies in practice

In our Typeform this month, many grantholders spoke about how they have incorporated Consequence Scanning successfully into their organisational practice. Wag & Co spoke to us about how this is now part of their management practice and they “consider potential impacts of all our developments on our users, the community and all affected stakeholders.” From CS they were able to to create development principles to drive decision making at every level.

Best Beginnings spoke about using CS to iterate their product principles for their app ‘Baby Buddy 2.0’. They said: “In February we carried out two rounds of consequence scanning with multidisciplinary members of our organisation to review our product principles. We identified the possible consequences (intentional and unintentional) of these principles on the potential users of our product, and have identified key items to mitigate against. We will continue to use consequence scanning now that we are in the user journey mapping stage, and the wider team are adopting the practice in other projects.”

Open Food Network told us about how they used CS to map out a framework of six categories (team, organisation, users, 2nd order users, communities, sector) within which to think about consequences existing. They add “this helped us to think beyond the silos of our day-to-day task list.” National Ugly Mugs will be using CS alongside a practice of ‘empathy mapping’ to work with the new tech team they are hiring — and see this as an invaluable way to “get on the same page about the impact our products and services should have as well as any impact that we may need to mitigate.”

Responsible Technology from the view of our grantholders

Responsible Technology means a certain thing in the context of civil society and funding by public money. This month, we surveyed our 29 grantholders to ask them about how they are putting Responsible Technology into practice. Below you can find some key themes and discussion points that emerged.

Using the power of principles to guide responsible innovation

Many of our grantholders spoke about the power of developing product principles to guide behaviour when developing new technology. In particular, going from values to principles is important because while values can be thought of as “codified beliefs”, principles are “codified behaviours”. Doing the work to develop actual practical guiderails on what a team is willing to say no to means that these values become practically implemented and real, and leaves less room for differing interpretation of values.

Matthew Black (Digital Projects Lead) from Best Beginnings reflected on our webinar:

“Many of our principles started with ‘we need to think about…’. Then evolved to be much more action-oriented.”

For example one of their principles is now “we will ensure our accessibility standards meet the NHS and NICE guidelines for digital product design,” which illustrates how specific and actionable they have evolved their principles to be.

Charlotte (Managing Director) at Carefree told us about a set of business operating principles that they use to vet decisions. The principles they use are: creating shared value, staying transparent and accountable, being flexible to drive delivery, community commitment and ethical footprint. This helps them make sure that their work is reflective of the standards they are trying to set for responsible innovation.

We hard that at National Ugly Mugs they also uphold the Charity Digital Code, and Children 1st have a robust risk assessment process and a children’s rights impact assessment to assess all our decisions in how they affect the right of children in practice. These kinds of processes can be helpful to be able to communicate with partner organisations and ensure standards.

Using resources wisely and not wasting them

Many of our grantholders discussed the importance of not wasting public money as another important aspect of responsible innovation. The question many of them were asking was “How do we build what we want to build in a way that is responsible — responsible use of investment, resources?”

This showed up in five ways: avoiding re-inventing the wheel by building technology that already exists, ensuring they are well equipped to embark on the development journeys they set out to do, staying focused and avoiding ‘scope creep’ where you try and do too many things, using agile development principles to work in a lean and efficient way, and constant testing with users so they can be sure their products and services are relevant and serving beneficiaries.

Lynne Davis, CEO of Open Food Network UK said in our webinar:

“Building wisely in this sector. Building software is the most expensive thing you will do”. Beware of scope creep — your scope can just keep growing and growing to try and meet everybody’s needs.”

Matthew from Best Beginnings told us: “When delivering projects with public money, there is an inherent responsibility to ensure that resources are not wasted. In the feasibility phase of our Baby Buddy 2.0 project, we have ensured that we are not developing a solution without evidence of need, and are not re-inventing the wheel. To innovate responsibly requires us to question the needs of our beneficiaries, assess if we are best placed to these meet needs, and deliver to our maximum potential without waste of resource.”

From Children 1st, Euan (Head of Business Development) told us:

“A part of responsible leadership is not to duplicate existing services, and align work to other smaller organisations.”

Not wasting resources seems to be an over-arching meta-message from a lot of our grantholders’ responses, and can show up in how careful they are in how they choose to spend and allocate human and material resources (e.g. by being strictly user-centred), as well as how they choose to make those resources go a long way (e.g. by aligning with other organisations and creating collaborations across their ecosystems, or ‘conscientious optimisation’ as Charlotte at Carefree put it).

Avoid building new technology

Following on from the point above, multiple grantholders actually went as far as to say that the civil society sector should not be building custom-build technology at all in publicly funded projects. “Of all the 190,000 charities in the UK, our observation is that the social need they are trying to meet does not require a new tech solution”. Charlotte from Carefree made this point during our webinar, going on to talk about how often what is actually needed is a much better way of doing something — that really speaks to good values of service design.

“We will go a long way if we get charities focused on service design and delivery rather than becoming a product company with engineers and backlog.”

This is especially important for funders who fund technology to understand. Using technology/software that already exists is called a “no-code approach” or “software-as-a-service approach” — that is about not building something new if you can use something that already exists. For the charity sector, organisations can take advantage of money and time that has already been invested to create high-quality products. “The functionality of those products is going to be far bigger than the functionality you can build yourself” Charlotte says, and you can have the same quality product without what is called “technical debt”.

This is also really important in being able to test products before investing too heavily in any specific approach (the core concept underpinning agile methodology). By using an existing technology, charities can test different ideas and approaches before spending their limited resources on a particular approach and “locking in”.

Harry Lieu, the founder of software company Airtable, talks about the ‘democratisation of software’ — giving companies and charities the ability to do what they would have had to custom build before. Charlotte also mentioned that many companies offer discounts to charities — and that Carefree is able to use some of their software free of charge.

If you do build anything, make it interoperable

If for some reason building a custom tech tool seems necessary, then bringing in a systemic awareness can make sure the technology built can be useful to others in the ecosystem. This means thinking about interoperability — i.e. the capability of a product or system to interact and function with others. You can think of this as building something in the physical world that has the right plugs to plug into other existing products — e.g. in its simplest form having a headphones jack in your iPod that can work with non-Apple headphones too.

Lynne from Open Food Network stressed the importance of this in our webinar, saying “in the knowledge that we can’t do everything, how can we make what we do as useful as possible? How do we be as interoperable as possible?” Lynne spoke about the importance of having tools that can interact with each other — so that Open Food Network doesn’t have to create e.g. a new accounting tool, or newsletter distribution tool.

“Focus on your core product and make sure it can interoperate with others”

Staying open and accountable to the public

Spending public money on developing technology means it’s even more important to stay open and accountable to the public. This was a theme that we saw across our Strand one organisation’s reflections. Polly Cook (Digital Service Transformation Lead at Parkinsons UK) told us:

“We are open with society about what we are learning and what is working and what isn’t. We use our blog and our Twitter accounts to do this and to have open discussion and debate.”

Polly also told us that part of this is monitoring and reporting on risks transparently and regularly, and regularly reviewing and doing retrospectives on our work to identify areas of learning and accountability.

Lynne at Open Food Network told us that openness is something they highly prioritise as a social enterprise, and that it’s something that’s paid off for them. “All of our handbooks, our processes and documentation is open, our slack is public, our forum is public.” This openness has helped Open Food Network scale — as they’ve been able to really mobilise and engage their community to co-produce and have a stake in the technology and systems that are produced.

Considers data privacy, security and risk of users

It was also good to see many of our Strand one grantholders (but actually quite few of our Strand two’s) talking about the need to create platforms and services that protect users data and and privacy and manage any risks involved in bringing users online or together. Polly from Parkinsons UK told us that Parkinsons carefully considers the implications of collecting data, and ensures a data protection officer signs off these decisions.

1. We’ve all be trained on carrying our user research ethically, considering not only consent, but how to conduct interviews ethically, how to ensure we collect the right data and spend the time understanding the complete and accurate picture

Developing technology that puts users at its centre

As our grantholders are developing technology with a social mission, i.e. to meet a particular user’s need, it’s important that the product or service is developed with users at its centre. This was a theme that came up in common across almost all of our Strand one and Strand two grantees — highlighting the hard work that is going into user research, user testing and user-centred design.

One example from Euan from Children 1st was “We have been learning that we need to develop a service/product that is finely attuned to those that need it most.” Likewise, Julie Bishop, Director at the Law Centres Network (a Strand one organisation) said:

“We must try to always follow best practice, be human centred and solve real problems.”

When speaking with Charlotte from Carefree, she told us that the really key thing to doing that is to bring software developers and engineers on board with the approach. “Engineers can become very attached to a technology they are creating” which runs the risk of getting in the way of creating the technology that is simply most needed/wanted by users. By coupling consequence scanning with agile principles (e.g. gathering gathering user feedback, testing hypotheses and assumptions) she thinks they are getting there. She said:

“Remember to TEST your assumptions — is this a problem your beneficiaries feel and is this a good problem to solve? You need feedback loops — so that your product that’s built in the end has the wider voice of your beneficiaries built into it”

Supporting as many beneficiaries as possible

If you can build a product that really meets the need of users, then this will be more likely to scale and meet the need of many users within your defined pool of people this is made for. Unlike for-profit tech, the idea is not to create technology that appeals to and enlists as many people as possible, but to actually really meet user need and only within that framework focus on supporting as many beneficiaries as possible.

Lucy from Grandparents Plus in particular highlighted the importance of prioritising the reach to many users, which can also mean collaborating with others.

From a charity perspective this is an interesting one, as a charity both has the mission to reach and support as many people in need as possible, but also the incentive to make that need obsolete. It also calls into question whether scaling a product or service is always inherently good in a charity context. Scaling services could also take away from the quality or bespoke-ness of a product or service, which could be less beneficial to users.

Focus on solving the core problem

Julie Bishop from Law Centres Network spoke about this in her reflections this month, saying that their work must be sustainable, not simply finding funds to carry forward, but rather the innovation should solve the root issue and not a symptom of the issue which should allow the solution to be resilient as change occurs. Many other grantholders also spoke about the need to actually solve the problem or meet the need, and not just ‘wanting to use the latest gadget’. i.e. the innovation must always be focused on the people to be served, not the technology itself.

Conclusion

Building technology responsibly is a number one priority for civil society organisations who carry extra accountability, both to the public and people funding them, but also to their beneficiaries who they exist to serve. Developing good service design practice, project and product principles, and aligning with other organisations in the ecosystem and building technology that is useful, interoperable, and doesn’t re-invent the wheel are all part of a path towards Responsible Technology with a social mission. Overall we identified four take home messages.

Four take home messages

Build wisely

Use resources in the best possible way to maximise impact and not reinvent the wheel.

Users at the centre

Users must be at the centre of all technology and services built, and agile principles will help you get there.

Stay focused on your social mission

Stay focused on the larger purpose and social mission of the technology being built is present — your “north star”.

Align with others

Aligning with other organisations in your ecosystem can allow a technology product to go further — and connect to existing services

Thank you to our grantholders

For their hard work, and willingness to be engaged in active reflection, retrospective and review and sharing their learning.

With thanks to: Wag & Co, National Ugly Mugs, Grandparents Plus, Open Food Network, Carefree, GoodGym, Best Beginnings, Parkinson’s UK, Family Lives, Law Centres Network, Children 1st, Lancashire Women CLC, We Are With You (formerly Addaction), Make A Wish Foundation, NCVO, Refugee Action, Aberlour Child Care Trust, Samaritans, Bath & North East Somerset Carers’ Centre.

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Phoebe Tickell

Phoebe Tickell

Cares about the common good. Building capacity for deep systems change. Complexity & ecosystems obsessive. Experiments for everything. 10 yrs #systemsthinking.