Responsible software engineering: How to code for humanity

25 Jul 2023


Psychologist Dr Sarah Robinson argues for ‘making people and their experiences central’ to the software development process.

Using a variety of creative approaches, psychologist Dr Sarah Robinson is researching ways to incorporate real-world insights into responsible software development.

“Software engineers lost in their code may not think about the impact that code can have on someone in another culture or part of the world.

“We are interested in humanising the abstractions that happen in software engineering and making people and their experiences central.”

As part of her ongoing research, she is asking the public to take part in an online survey to establish people’s hopes and fears about artificial intelligence and software in general.

“As software impacts all our lives, the public is a key stakeholder in deciding what being responsible for software should mean,” she explained.

For Robinson, this research is “more urgent than ever”, given the rapidly strengthening grip the online world has on our lives.

Tell us about your current research.

I work as a community psychologist on the Responsible Software Engineering project with my colleague Dr Irum Inayat, a software engineer. Our project is based in Lero, the Science Foundation Ireland Research Centre for Software.

The project engages with the public on what they think software engineers should consider as they build and develop the code that impacts and shapes our world. In short, how can we create software that enhances our lived experiences, based on the real experiences of the public and in dialogue with them.

We are considering responsibility more broadly than traditional legal definitions (which we think are important, but perhaps not enough for some of the harms we currently see in the world).

A selfie of Dr Sarah Robinson. She has blonde hair, blue eyes and is smiling and wearing a red top, standing against a cream wall.,

Image: Dr Sarah Robinson

In your opinion, why is your research important?

Software influences all aspects of our lives, at least here in the globalised West, yet the public seem passive about how Big Tech is shaping our world.

It’s almost as if we feel a collective learned helplessness as platforms are now an everyday part of our lives and connect us professionally and socially to our networks. This passivity has been explained through ideas like the privacy paradox (people’s stated concerns about online privacy are contradicted by their online behaviours) or the digital divide (the gap between those who have access to modern information and communication technology and those who don’t).

Our research seeks to contribute to this space by working with software engineers and the public, and finding out what issues matter to them, what their priorities are in terms of being responsive and responsible, and what changes need to be made to realise those goals.

What inspired you to become a researcher?

I have always been curious about the world, and I love having a question and using research to find the answer. I particularly love doing that with and in communities and seeing how communities can transform through a knowledge generation process.

Before I worked in academia, I worked in East Africa in humanitarian and international development work. I remember a piece of research I conducted with Concern in Somaliland where we were exploring how gender impacted their development programmes. I held focus groups with women and men, using an exercise with a daily clock to illustrate what work women and men do. The men could not believe how much time women and girls gave to the family and in this instance, their farms every day. They had an “a-ha” moment with me that day and I remember feeling hooked ever since.

As a community psychologist, I’m an outsider to the software world, but I love questioning the assumptions that my colleagues have and bringing the background conditions that they take for granted to the fore.

What are some of the biggest challenges or misconceptions you face as a researcher in your field?

When some people hear about software, they might think it’s not relevant to their lives or anything to concern them if they don’t identify as being techy.

What I want people to realise is that technology impacts us all, whether we are aware of it or not. I want to make the conversation about responsible software relevant to all of us.

During the pandemic for example, the rapid digital transformation meant the only means I had to communicate with my grandmother was through Zoom and WhatsApp video. At 95, she became dependent on software systems to navigate the world. It was no replacement for in-person connection, and we watched her wilt away through the mediation of the screens.

The assumption that software could be a replacement to in-person contact, for residents in nursing homes, was not enough to replace family and friends, and I became acutely aware that digital transformation ignores some experiences. Including everyone who is impacted by software is a challenge.

One of my big passions is connecting global justice and software. People don’t often realise that if the cloud, where we store our endless pictures and messages, were a country, it would be the biggest emitter of pollution in the world.

We cannot talk about climate change without talking about computing and thinking through our data practices here in Ireland. I am excited about making these links visible to people in a way that can be motivating to bring change and responsible practice, but it’s a big challenge we face.

Do you think public engagement with science has changed in recent years?

Public engagement is at the heart of our project. Recently, I’ve partnered with MTU’s Creativity and Change programme, which nurtures creative engagement on global citizenship.

We performed a forum theatre production titled Algorithm Justice. Forum theatre is a form of interactive theatre originally developed in South America by Augusto Boal, which engages the audience in a reflection on their experiences of the social justice issue they have seen.

In Algorithm Justice, the audience followed the story of a teenager named Anna and her mother as they navigate the negative impacts of social media on youth mental health. The mother makes discoveries that the same algorithms affecting her daughter also have implications on everything from a rise in misogyny in schools to genocide in Myanmar. After seeing the performance, the audience can revisit the play with new strategies and approaches. Together, we rehearse the changes we want to see.

We are also partnering with the Creativity and Change programme on some creative workshops with the public in September and with software engineers exploring similar topics and we hope to disseminate our research findings through a street art project in early 2024.

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