Public Lab Wiki documentation

Ethics and Politics

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Gathering and sharing knowledge always creates ethical and political questions. Active discussion of ethical approaches to and questions about our research and technology development process and data sharing practices work is particularly important to public lab as we attempt to address community environmental health issues.

This page is a place to collect up, pose and discuss ethical questions raised by public laboratory work. While we don't think these questions can ever simply be answered, we aim to continually be developing, refining and adapting shared guidelines for public laboratory work in the aim of cultivating "civic science".

What is "civic science"?

Anthropologists of science Mike and Kim Fortun have defined this as a science that is ethically committed to human welfare. Kim Fortun and Michael Fortun, "Scientific Imaginaries and Ethical Plateaus in Contemporary U.S. Toxicology," American Anthropologist 107:43-54 (2005).

How can/should public lab honor a commitment to human welfare in its process of tool development, in the design of the tools themselves, in the distribution and use of data generated by those tools?

Informed consent in vulnerable communities

In many PLOTS and Grassroots Mapping projects to date, we have made an effort to collaborate directly with community members, rather than through intermediaries, however in the absence of either effective democratic processes or well-established norms around the kind of projects we develop (i.e. mapmaking, environmental investigations) it can be difficult to define what constitutes informed consent.

What are reasonable expectations of privacy if one group of residents wishes to produce maps of, or measure toxins in and around their whole community? What publication or sharing/licensing strategies are appropriate for such data? Does the production and/or publication of such data expose participants to unreasonable risk? Are local partners willing to accept or capable of accepting such risks as there are?

Questions in Particular Projects:

How can and should Public Laboratory work with large-scale NGOs?

Early in 2011 Public lab was approached by the World Bank to develop a GRM mapping project in Togo to assist in disaster management. The project raised many questions that we are trying to wrestle with--is it still civic science if we are working with NGOs and Government? Should public lab engage in "development work"? How can we engage directly with local residents and protect their interests?

We are encountering similar issues in a project proposed by UNICEF in Rio. UNICEF is interested in helping communities develop environmental awareness through GRM. The communities they want to map are currently being "pacified" by police presence:

(I (Jeff) just want to interject here that there is not a clear link drawn between the pacification and the mapping -- what's the link? Why is it concerning? The answer is, as I understand it, that engaging the communities to produce maps and share the data with government could be seen as a form of surveillance, and could expose the communities to risk on the part of the occupying police forces.)

UNICEF wished Public Lab to train regional trainers who are not residents of these communities, to work with residents to develop maps. How can PLOTS best advocate ethical approaches to civic science in such consulting arrangements, and does such consulting really make sense for PLOTS?

Public Lab's staff has agreed to try these project as pilot tests for whether we think public lab should collaborate more long term with large-scale NGOs and governments in a "consultant" like basis. We have actively been developing terms and conditions for such work:

We have also been adapting "Practical ethics for PGIS practitioners, facilitators, technology intermediaries and researchers" by Rambaldi et al, to generate teaching materials for training trainers in Rio:

What else should we do? What other questions should we ask? What data should we gather to evaluate these projects?

Jeff--can we make it so list discussions about ethics are also archived here?