Research Methodology: Ethically Aware Research for Ethical Innovation

Developing an understanding of information practices requires careful observation of everyday work practices as well as stakeholder engagement in a collaborative research and design process. The SecInCoRe project develops an ethnographically informed, iterative and experimental co-design approach. This means that in collaboration with practitioners, policy-makers and members of the public, the project team observes and analyses existing and emerging future practices of emergency response. Through interviews, workshops and experimental implementations of prototype technologies we seek to develop ethically circumspect innovation in socio-technical systems for multi-agency, cross-border disaster response that push the state of the art in information technology (IT) and professional and public practice.

This collaborative approach requires experimentation with real world work practices, and a research ethics approach that is sensitive to broader ethical, legal and social issues of IT innovation.

IT innovation in the domain of crisis response and management raises many ethical opportunities, challenges and risks. For example, in an emergency situation it could be useful to access, process and share data about, for example:


Affected persons First Responders NGO and Volunteers The environment
vital signs skills organisational affiliation maps
location equipment skills sensor information
medical data organisational affiliation equipment weather
personal data (name, age,gender, employer) hours worked certifications temperatures
social network data levels of exposure (e.g. to radiation) video
past/present movement audio
medical data floorplans
vital signs access codes


In an emergency, many people would wish such data – some of which is personal data and normally protected under Directive 95/46/EC – to be shared between relevant emergency responders, because it is in their interest to enable production of rich and accurate situation awareness for rescue operations. Aggregation, sharing, analysing and visualising personal data can enhance emergency responders’ capacity to efficiently obtain and utilise ‘the right information at the right time’, to coordinate and collaborate. User generated content (e.g. crisis related tweets or contributions to crisis mapping platforms such as Ushahidi), social networking, consumer and financial information, criminal records, and other information may also become useful.

However, opportunities for more effective ‘agile’ emergency response based on such data sharing could ‘spill over’ into everyday life and could contribute to an erosion of privacy and civil liberties (Graham, 2010). The SecInCoRe project proposes that IT supported emergency response should not pose a choice between security or privacy, but should seek to enable accountable, careful and responsible balancing of security and privacy. Qualitative research, ethnography and co-design are central to embedding these values in the research and the socio-technical innovations produced. The SecInCoRe research and design approach builds on European traditions of civic engagement in innovation: “European citizens care deeply about protecting their privacy and data protection rights” (Kanter, 2011). Collaborative research and co-design offer unique methodologies for the development of innovative solutions through ‘collective experimentation’, a notion developed by an expert panel on Taking the European Knowledge Society Seriously:

the regime of collective experimentation … recalls John Dewey’s conception of policy as collective experimentation. But the experimentation is now at the technological level as well. Situations emerge or are created which allow [societies] to try out things and to learn from them, i.e. experimentation. Society becomes a laboratory, one could say (Krohn & Weyer 1994). Here, however, the experimentation does not derive from promoting a particular technological promise, but from goals constructed around matters of concern and that may be achieved at the collective level. Such goals will often be further articulated in the course of the experimentation. (Wynne et al., 2007: 26-27).

The SecInCoRe project seeks to serve the public interest by exploiting opportunities and maximising benefits of IT supported emergency response, whilst enabling individuals, communities and societies to be (or become) aware of risks and manage them. The advanced technical innovations the project explores pose a range of challenges that can only properly be addressed through collective experimentation.

The ethical research approach taken by SecInCoRe combines two interrelated goals: (1) to conduct research with human subjects ethically and (2) to inform innovation that is sensitive to ethical, legal and social values, challenges and opportunities.

The SecInCoRe team includes experts on the social foundations of ethical, legal and social opportunities and challenges in multi-agency crisis management and collaborative design (Monika Büscher, Director Centre for Mobilities Research, Lancaster University, Katrina Petersen, Research Associate) and legal frameworks (Catherine Easton, School of Law, Lancaster University). In addition, SecInCoRe regularly consults external ethical experts, including, and by inviting guest speakers and discussants to Design Workshops and International Workshops on Ethical, Legal and Social Issues held, for example, in conjunction with the international Intelligent Systems for Crisis Management and Response (ISCRAM 2015, 2016) conference or the Computers, Privacy and Data Protection Conference (CPDP 2017).

SecInCoRe has a designated work package (WP2 Domain Analysis, Collaborative Design and Ethical, Legal and Social Issues), which aims to constructively identify and monitor IT Ethics related to ethical, legal and social issues (ELSI) emerging as the research proceeds. This will be achieved through domain analysis, value sensitive and collaborative (co-)design methods, privacy by design and other methods, as well as ethical and privacy impact assessments (EIA/PIA). Ethical Impact Assessment probes ethical issues through a series of questions posed to developers and users, for example about underlying values and principles of beneficence and non-maleficence, awareness of unintended consequences, or more specifically about mechanisms to support e.g. safety. EIA is an iterative process (Wright, 2010). PIA is a similar process, focused on privacy issues (Clarke, 2009; Wright & DeHeert, 2012) (for an introduction to ELSI methods see Büscher, Liegl, Rizza & Watson 2015). WP2 aims to fold a nuanced and critical understanding of ethical risks and opportunities into design. Ethical, legal and social issues are understood as related matters. Indeed, the most critical aspect of legal and ethical matters is that they must be implemented in and through technologically augmented social practice. This is reflected in our analytical approach, which combines ethical, legal and social expertise with experience in informing innovation through qualitative social science research. Our research design aims to maximise the potential for original, ELSI sensitive research and development with significant impact.