In TM470 LSEPI is an abbreviation for Legal Social Ethical and Professional Issues. A good TM470 project report should clearly address these issues to show the examiner that you have thought about how these issues have impacted on your project, and what you have done to take these into account.
LSEP issues are increasingly important in computing due to the increasing impact that computing and IT has within society. When speaking with students I often a recent example: the Volkswagen emissions scandal. In this case, there are clear environmental impacts and legal implications. It is also clear that both the engineers and leaders have to make ethical decisions.
In TM470, LSEP issues are assessed through the following learning outcome: “LO10. Identify and address the legal, social, ethical and professional issues (LSEPIs) and the equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) concerns that may arise during the development and use of computing and IT systems.” In the marking of the EMA, this learning outcome is assessed with LO2, which is all about the aims and goals of your project. When just looking at the number of learning outcomes, and the marks available, the LSEPI section could account for 10 marks.
To gain a top score for this learning outcome a student: “has comprehensively identified the relevant LSEPIs and EDI concerns arising during development and use and modified their project work to take these into account and behaved professionally in all aspects of their project work”. EDI being an abbreviation for equality, diversity and inclusion.
Given the importance of both LSEP and EDI, a suggestion is to include it as a top level section in your report, just before the literature review section. The justification for this is that if you identify some issues that need to be explored in greater depth, you can then go onto provide evidence of your reading.
At the time of writing, it takes a bit of digging to find two documents that relate to both LSEP and EDI issues. From the module website, click on the Resources heading, and then click on the Study materials section.
The LSEP document contains the following key headings: working with stakeholders, working with human participants, and asking the right questions. Do review the materials that are presented under these headings and review Appendix A Guidelines for conducting research with human participants. Related to these are two template documents: a sample consent form, and a participant information sheet.
Informed consent is the process through which researchers share the aims and purpose of their research with participants, and gain their approval that they are happy to participate in a study. The accompanying information sheet is designed to offer further information under a set of familiar headings.
When working with participants, I always remember two points. The first is that participants are at liberty to leave a study at any point. The second point is related: the participants are always more important than the research that is being carried out.
The equality, diversity and inclusion section addresses “why equality, diversity and inclusion are relevant to computing and IT professionals”, introduces the concept of protected characteristics, and “unconscious bias is and how it might affect your practice as a computing and IT professional” and what mitigations might be adopted (TM470 module materials).
EDI relates to people, and differences between people, irrespective of whether they are perceived or due to physical, cognitive or sensory impairments. Since Computing and IT products are, ultimately, used by people, it is necessary to consider EDI issues. If you design an app or a website, your product should be accessible to the widest possible group of users. The motivations for doing this are twofold: firstly, there is a legal obligation to ensure that products and systems are accessible under the Equality Act, and secondly, all users are potential customers. If a product isn’t accessible or perceived negatively, a consumer might choose another service that has a more accessible, usable, or appealing interface.
Looking at this issue from a slightly different perspective, if your project uses artificial intelligence or machine learning, it is necessary to question the extent to which biases might exist within either data that informs your project, and the extent to which bias might be potentially reinforced, or even magnified.
Questions to ask
As highlighted earlier, the LSEP materials contains a section that has the title: asking the right questions.
Go through each of these questions in turn.
When working through these questions, do think about the stakeholders who are involved with your project. A stakeholder can be thought of anyone who is affected by your project, either directly or indirectly. Ask yourself questions about what data might need to be held and collected, and what bits of legislation might play and impact if you were ever to deploy your project. The Equality Act was mentioned above. You might want to also consider data protection and computer misuse legislation.
If your project is a research report it is important to ask: what might be the impact of my report? If something is discovered by the report, what might be the impact of disclosing the results, or not disclosing the results? The point here is that it is important to go further than just the immediate project, but also to consider wider and broader impacts.
Differences between student projects and university projects
Before university staff can carry out research that involved human participants, they must submit project proposals through a formal ethics panel. The aim of this panel is to make sure that researchers have carefully considered everything, and any potential risks to all participants (and to the university) have been mitigated.
Unlike official university projects, undergraduate and postgraduate projects are not required to go through such a rigorous process. Rather than having an ethics panel and a lot of electronic paperwork to complete, students should think of their tutor or project supervisor as a mini ethics panel.
Interacting with your tutor whilst considering your LSEP and EDI issues should be thought of as a useful and necessary part of your project. Your tutor will be able to offer some thoughts about what needs to be considered. Plus, interactions with your tutor or supervisor can be documented in an appendix of your final reports.
A lot of good resources about ethics are available, and some of these resources are mentioned in the module materials. Here are a collection of links that might be useful:
- Association of Computing Machinery (ACM) Code of Ethics
- British Computer Society (BCS) Code of Conduct
For those that find this subject really interesting, there is a whole suggested curriculum about Society, Ethics and Professionalism on the ACM website.
Going through the ethics bit of TM470 gives you a taste of what university researchers have to go through when they plan and design studies that involve human participants. More information about what goes on behind the scenes at the OU is presented through Ethics support for projects: Which studies need review, by whom and why? (OU blog)
I find ethics a fascinating subject. In computing it comes into play more than you might initially expect since computing touches on so many different areas of human activity. Rather than being a subject that was once on the periphery of the discipline, I now see it as a topic that has moved to the centre. It is an important and necessary part of becoming a computing professional.
It is also interesting to reflect on how ethics has developed since I was a graduate student. There is now a lot more that has to be done, but this isn’t a bad thing. Additional scrutiny along the way helps researchers to carry out better research. For TM470 students, my key bit of advice is: speak with your tutor; they are your own personal ethics panel.