Example ethical dilemmas

The scenarios in this page were developed by participants in a workshop at INTERACT 2009 on Ethics, Roles and Relationships in Interaction Design in Developing Regions.

Some questions you might want to consider for each scenario are:

  1. who decided that this was a problem/issue?
  2. who is  this a “problem for?
  3. who do you need to talk to/where else can you go for background information?
  4. what is the community spending in time/money/oppoturnity cost in being good hosts?
  5. who  gets to say how good the solution is and how?
  6. who gets to review the reporting?
  7. how have the people been affected by their research?

Scenario 1: Graduate Tensions

G is an HCI graduate student in the U.S. working on designing mobile applications to help health workers in rural villages. Before setting off on her 3 month field trip, she spent weeks refining her IRB protocol and finally got approval to (1) ask a set of questions to both health workers and their female clients according to a meticulously prepared interview guide, (2) get usability feedback on some intial mobile protoypes.

In the field, when G employs her interview guide, she receives conflicting information. Health workers say they visit their clients regularly, whereas clients say they never see the health workers.

Clients say they take their medication whereas health workers complain that their clients do not. Doctors complain about the incompetence of rural health workers, and health workers complain about the apathetic doctors who train them. G does not know who to believe and realizes that understanding the complexity of the social dynamics in order to get these answers is as complicated as a Ph.D. in itself, and could take months to years.

Meanwhile, during conversations with her advisor back in the U.S., G is reminded that collecting responses to these interview questions is a crucial first step before beginning design, her actual goal. G feels restricted by the amount of time she has in the field, the need to submit a paper in three months, the Institutional Ethics Committee, and her own professional, financial and biological clocks telling her that she needs to graduate soon.

Posted by Andy Dearden at 16:32 No comments:

Scenario 2: Trust & safety for a female researcher

Ellen is a doctoral student who is working on gender and ICT in Kenya.
She has never done fieldwork before, but has talked with Peace Corps volunteers and other development workers before launching into her research. She wants to embody the “Participant-Observer” position that she has read much about in research methods courses, and is determined to fit into women’s community activities and lifestyles. However, on her first day, she receives two pieces of news that make her question how she is going to fit in to the community without disrupting it or her. One seems mild, but causes Ellen some embarrassment, and one is riskier.

First, the women in the community make fun of her clothes. Ellen thinks she is dressed for fieldwork success – baggy trousers to show modesty, a long sleeve shirt, and no makeup or jewelry or hair style. The women in this rural and poor community are all in long skirts, with lots of hair ornamentation. They laugh at Ellen and tell her that she looks like a boy, and how are they supposed to trust a woman-man? They offer her some clothes, which she puts on, but she is worried that she will be seen as somehow mocking the women by appropriating their dress. She also doesn’t know if the things she is being given to wear are presents or not, or if she should offer them some shillings in exchange. She feels like she is in costume the rest of the day, but the women are far more warm to her once she looks more like them. However, Ellen knows that she is supposed to be reflexive about her position, and is concerned that she is not representing herself accurately as a researcher/observer, and on top of that, she simply feels like a “fake” member of the group.

Second, Ellen assumes that she will be staying in the community. She expects to pay a family for room and board, and brings this up to one of the women who seems to be sympathetic to her, and closest to her age. The woman looks concerned and talks to the other women, who also look thoughtful and concerned. A few shake their heads “no.” Ellen wonders what line she has crossed, but the first woman says that no, they cannot have her stay in the community. There is not enough food and water for an extra person, even for sale, and besides, the women cannot guarantee Ellen’s safety against rape, which is prevalent in the community. Ellen has a tent in case her requests were turned down, and has her own food and water, which she shows the women, but they are adamant that they cannot secure her safety and that she should leave the community before nightfall.

1. Is there such a thing as fieldwork that isn’t “disruptive” in some way, or is this a myth? What are some of the pros and cons of being an external force faced to confront community issues, from both the researcher and community perspectives?

2. Should Ellen stick to her own “cultural” way of dressing, since she is already an outsider, and hope that the women will eventually warm to her so that she can earn their trust and rapport for interviews? Or should she try to follow local customs, even though she is concerned about not representing herself as a researcher.

3. Ellen talked to many regional “experts,” none of who mentioned these potential situations. How else could she have been more prepared and thus made more educated choices about her research and her positionality?

4. What are some of the things women researchers need to be specifically aware of because of their gender, and how do personal safety and cultural immersion collide and also inform each other?

5. What other questions should we ask about this scenario?

Scenario 3: India common service centres vs. mobile phone based approach to tele-health

Dr K and Dr R have been working with an NGO in one of India’s states in a 4 year investigation using new interactive systems to deliver health advice and care in a remote rural district. After a year of intense discussions, the project is exploring ways of supporting remote health consultations and advice through electronic links to a health centre in the main town of the block, and (if required) linking to medical advisors in the district capital and other major cities of the state. In discussing the alternative solutions, Dr K & Dr R are interested in using an approach based on high-end smartphones, that they think represents a significant advance in research. They reason that, although the phones & services are too expensive at present to be sustainable, the solution they devise could be sustainable in about 5 years time as the price of handsets and services decreases. On the other hand, the NGO is interested in a solution that makes use of the ‘Common Service Centres’ that the Indian federal government is rolling out across the country. These CSCs will provide internet access points in every panchayat. The NGO is aware of other similar projects that have used a similar approach, and would like to base their local solution on ‘tried & tested’ approaches. However, Dr K & Dr R are worried that implementing this solution would not be aligned with the objectives agreed with their research funder.

  • What should Dr K & R do?
  • How should they view the balance of ‘innovative research’ and ‘change delivery’ aspects of their project?
  • What are the ethics, roles & relationships relevant to this situation?
  • What other questions do we need to ask about this scenario?

Scenario 4: Technical team in UK vs. software developers locally

Dr C is managing an e-governance project in a Central Asian republic of Akagastan. There is a software development budget available, and Dr C has used some of it with Cardo Developers, a small company based in the capital of Akagastan. Dr C is hoping that the project’s interaction with Cardo developers will help build local interaction design capacity. For the first 18 months of the project, the software design has been progressing reasonably well, but Dr C is concerned that Cardo developers’ interfaces are of poor quality, and may result in the deployed system being more difficult to use than Dr C would like. Dr C may be able to spend some of the software development budget to employ one of her PhD students to do some of the design work, but this would have to come out of the original budget that was planned to be spent with Cardo.

  • What should Dr Cdo?
  • How should she view the balance of ‘capacity building’ and ‘change delivery’ aspects of their project?
  • What are the ethics, roles & relationships relevant to this situation?
  • What other questions do we need to ask about this scenario?

Scenario 5: Recruiting project participants at the local university

Dr P and Professor N are working on a microfinance project with women’s groups in a remote district of a South Asian country. Because these researchers are keen to build local capacity as part of their project outcomes, they have made contact with the IT department of a university based in the regional capital. They have been in contact with one of the faculty, Dr J, who has considerable experience of working with IT for development projects. They are hoping that they can recruit some students within the university who can work under Dr J’s supervision, to contribute to the technology design and development as part of their degree studies.

When Dr P & Professor N visit the faculty, however, they are informed that Dr J is about to start a sabbatical where he will be out of the country for 12 months, and they realise that the rest of the faculty of the university do not have experience of this kind of work, and they are concerned that if they involve students from this university, the students will not have sufficiently strong supervision to ensure that they behave sensitively and appropriately within the project. There is a risk that involving the students could make the project aims more difficult to deliver.

  • What should Dr P & Professor N do?
  • How should they view the balance of ‘capacity building’ and ‘change delivery’ aspects of their project?
  • What are the ethics, roles & relationships relevant to this situation?
  • What other questions do we need to ask about this scenario?

Scenario 6: Local champion leaves

A research team consisting of Dr M (based in North America) and 2 PhD students has been working for 2 years investigating mobile technologies to support work with a school district in the North of a West African republic. Extensive participatory design activities have been conducted, and a prototype software system is being developed. Trials for the new system are being planned, and will require some investment of time and money by the school district. Discussions with the director of the school district have been positive, and the project expects the district to agree to provide the necessary resources. However, three months before the trials are to begin, the director, who is the key champion for the project, leaves to take up a new post in the education headquarters of a district capital in the South West. During the interim period, the deputy director appears to be reluctant to progress the project, and the person appointed to the post does not seem particularly interested in supporting ICT initiatives.

  • What should Dr M do?
  • How might this affect the students’ PhD studies?
  • What might the team have done differently to avoid this situation?
  • What are the ethics, roles & relationships relevant to this situation?
  • What other questions do we need to ask about this scenario?

Scenario 7: Inclusive Research

Professor A, who is based in Europe, has been funded to develop ICT solutions relevant for rural health in a central Asian republic. She is keen to contribute to building local capacity in research and interaction design skills, and so is collaborating on the research with the IT department of a university in the capital. To support the collaborative investigation of local problems and participatory design of solutions, Professor A has appointed Dr C, a member of staff from the University, who is conducting the primary field work. Reading Dr C’s reports from the field, Professor A is concerned that Dr C’s participatory sessions may not be including and enabling sufficient input from women in the villages. Discussing the issues, Dr C says that he is working very hard to include the voices of women. However, from informal conversations Professor A knows that Dr C’s religious & social background suggests it is natural and appropriate for men & women to have very different roles, with women’s role being less autonomous.

  • What should Professor A do?
  • What might she have done differently to avoid this situation?
  • What are the ethics, roles & relationships relevant to this situation?
  • What other questions do we need to ask about this scenario?

Scenario 8: A cool drink

Ever heard of “my best china” or “Sunday best”. In most developing countries this applies too and as a Researcher you need to be aware of it.

Africans are  for instance known for their generosity especially to “visitors”/”guests”  and will go out of their way to be as hospitable as possible sometimes to great personal cost.
What this means is that you as a guest will be treated to the best even if  this costs them. Typically you may arrive in a village and it is a very hot day. Yours hosts will appreciate that you are hot, thirsty and perhaps hungry.

Don’t be surprised that they put on a big meal for you and or offer you a cold drink. This cold drink is likely to be a soft drink such as Fanta, Cola etc. This is something that they cannot afford for themselves but will go out of their way to make it available for the guest!

This Cold Drink, typically costs £0.20-£0.50p and  if your host’s income is only $2 a day can you imagine the impact of your accepting such a drink would be on their persoanl finances?
But as a researcher how could you know this?

Did you give some thought to what the community is spending in terms of money, time in order to be good hosts  to you?

Scenario 9: A day out on the boat

In the northeastern coast of Brazil, many small villages still live out of their fishing during most of the year, but they are becoming an increasingly attractive touristic destination to Brazilians and foreigners alike. So, during the vacation period, the fishermen increase their income by taking tourists in their boats and showing the way of life of the natives. Also, as it becomes more and more common that foreigners buy or build summer houses in the village, it is also common that the local families take jobs as housekeepers during the months of the year when the summer houses are empty.

A family from a richer part of Brazil owns a small house in the village for many years. They are already known in the community and liked by the fishermen and their families. The captain of one of the boat, who was just a kid when the family started spending summers in the village, is especially helpful. He offers to take the family in a boat trip without charging anything. He is so kind in his offer that it is really easy to forget that, by being available to entertain the family, he is not doing his own work and earning his daily income.

But even if the family is aware of this and intends to compensate him financially, how much money is enough?

And how much is too much, that would be on the verge of humiliating the captain?

Scenario 10: Who’s Got a Phone?

In a small room on the outskirts of Abuja, Nigeria, Thomas is preparing a group of farmers for a focus group. The farmers are here to help the researchers understand how technology has impacted their business and growth. The researchers are here to look for new areas of opportunity. Thomas opens with a few casual questions asking the farmers where they’re from, what they grow and some light quips to break the ice.

Starting to focus the discussion on technology, Thomas asks: “So, who here has a cell phone?”. A few casual glances around. Silence. Thomas, wanting to confirm the negative, follows up with  “Well then, who doesn’t have a cell phone?” All the hands slowly go up as the farmers begrudgingly acknowledge this fact.

Then, in a slight act of ignorance of social and economic factors weighing upon those in the group, Thomas asks “Well, why not?”

Scenario 11: A Cuban Meal

When traveling in Cuba, a researcher was invited by a family who wanted her to come to their home for dinner.  Because of the Cuban culture of hospitality and the fact that she was a foreigner and therefore, an “honored guest”, the family felt obligated to feed her a very lavish dinner.  However, they were all very poor, and food was scarce, even for the wealthy.  Because the researcher was aware of this, however, she felt she was in a bind.  She didn’t want the family to go out of their way for her like this, and to be forced to spend so much money on her, but she was also aware that not going would be insulting.  Also, she was aware that the family was really looking forward to meeting an Americans, and was eager both to share their Cuban food, customs, and experiences with her, and to learn about our experience of Cuba and of America.

To deal with this, she considered paying the family directly, or trying to take THEM out to a meal at a restaurant, but she was told that this would be very insulting for them, and also disappointing since they wanted her to come to their home (and she, too, were curious to visit them at home).  After much deliberation, she made a contribution to the church that has originally told the family about the researcher’s visit and asked that they help the family to find and pay for the food.  They were extremely happy about this arrangement, and it allowed the family to maintain their dignity, while at the same time assisted them in obtaining and paying for the food.