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Applying The Business Ethics Canvas To Algorithms

by Richard Vidgen 3rd December 2019

Richard Vidgen presents his approach to addressing bias and unfairness in algorithm development.

Algorithms are playing a greater and greater role in our daily lives, impacting on job applications, medical treatment, policing, criminal justice, and loans and financial services. There are undoubted benefits to algorithmic decision-making in general, and artificial intelligence (AI) in particular, such as in medical diagnoses. However, there is also a dark side to algorithms. The Guardian newspaper has investigated “How algorithms punish the poor” and reports...

One in three councils are using computer algorithms to help make decisions about benefit claims and other welfare issues, despite evidence emerging that some of the systems are unreliable.
The potential for harm – intended or unintended – arising from algorithmic decision-making indicates that an ethical dimension is needed when organisations engage in projects that lead to algorithmic decision-making. Much of the guidance on ethical practice has been rather abstract. In our book Business Analytics, I and my co-authors Sam Kirshner and Felix Tan, propose a practical way of unpacking and thinking about ethical issues in the development of algorithms.​
The Markkula Institute for Applied Ethics identifies five ethical dimensions:
  • Utilitarian: focuses on outcomes and attempts to maximise good done while reducing harm
  • Rights: humans should have the ability to choose freely what they do with their lives and have rights such as being told the truth, to not be injured, and a right to privacy
  • Fairness (or Justice): all humans should be treated equally and where people are treated unequally then this must be done on the base of defendable criteria (e.g., to compensate for biases in society)
  • Common Good: society is more than the sum of individuals and there are common conditions (e.g., policing, health care, education) that are needed to protect the welfare of all members of society
  • Virtue: our actions should be consistent with ideal virtues that promote the full development of our humanity, such as truth, beauty, honesty, courage, compassion, generosity, tolerance, love, and integrity.
Working with these five dimensions we developed a ‘business ethics canvas’ (BEC) to guide algorithm developers in exploring the ethical aspects of their work:
Figure 1: the business ethics canvas template
The canvas elements, which are addressed going in clockwise order around the canvas, are:
  1. A proposed analytics solution that address the needs of specific customers (we recommend that these are generated using an opportunity canvas)
  2. Identification of stakeholders that can affect or are affected by the proposed analytics solution
  3. An assessment of stakeholder utility of the analytics solution
  4. An assessment of the rights of stakeholders
  5. An assessment of the fairness (justice) of the solution
  6. Implications for the common good
  7. Reflections on the virtue of the proposed analytics solution
The business ethics canvas was developed through application in an online travel organization that is considering using analytics to target its customers with ‘days out’ offers. The canvas should be developed in a design thinking style workshop and, where possible, involve multiple stakeholders. The use of post-it notes allows the canvas to be iterated and refined and the use of colour to highlight areas of concern and areas of opportunity.
Figure 2: an example of the business ethics canvas (BEC)
We propose that ethical analysis should not be seen as a constraint or overhead in algorithm development – exploring the ethical dimension and including multiple stakeholders provides a richer insight into business value creation, as well as providing greater confidence about emerging ethical implications and project risk. The business ethics canvas (BEC) and the opportunity canvas (OC) should be seen as counterparts where each shapes and informs the other in a creative tension to support the creation of business value in an ethical way.
Featured image: Photo by Markus Spiske. Available on Unsplash via the Unsplash Licence.