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Creating the Social Impact Statement

The SIS class project is based on library and empirical research, presented in class, and revised in the final documents.

In their library research, students are asked to locate discussions of the likely ethical and social issues associated with their client's system. As an entry to the literature, they should use whatever references their clients suggest, selections from the set of readings for the course [7], and other references that the instructor or other faculty members provide. They may expand on this reference base using standard bibliographic tools.

One purpose of the literature search is to help students compile a set of readings to recommend to their clients, but it is also helpful to prepare them for the kinds of issues they will be dealing with in the empirical stage of their projects.

Students are asked to use 3 different empirical techniques to locate and analyze the ethical and social issues:

  • Interviews with Principle Informants
  • Field observation of the system in use
  • Construction of day-in-the-life scenarios

The purpose of using different techniques is both to triangulate on issues and to attempt to uncover hidden inconsistencies or oversights that might be unquestioned if only one technique was used.

Interviews with Principle Informants

Students are given practice in taking an expert's verbal description of a system and unpacking it to determine the criteria the expert was using to describe the system. They are also given practice in constructing an interview protocol that led logically from basic issues to critical functions of the system. In addition, the ethical issues inherent in doing interviews (e.g. confidentiality, respect, informed consent) can be discussed.

Groups can be asked to do at least 3 and no more than 7 interviews. Some groups may conduct follow-up interviews. They are asked to interview the designers and managers of the system, but also to include, where possible, lower level operators and clients of the system (and other important stakeholders in the system).

These multiple views of the system can help piece together a more complex picture of the social and ethical concerns than a view from only one perspective.

Field Observation.

Give students practice in designing coding systems and taking field notes for careful, real time observation of the system in use [see 11 & 14 for suggestions]. The purpose of these observations is to allow students to get a better feel for the chaos and complexity of actual system use--as opposed to the description elicited in the interviews.

Groups are asked to do at least 3-5 hours of real-time observation. For some groups (e.g. the modem pool, the card access system) on-line activity reports might already been collected, and these may be used as a part of the field observation. Ask students to be respectful of people's privacy, but to also attempt to get as wide and varied a set of observations as time will allow.

Day-In-The-Life Scenarios

This technique, taken from human-computer interaction methods [13], involves taking the data from observations and interviews and using it to construct a "story-line" of a unit of the system over a unit of time.

This could consist in tracking the actions of a person over a day (or over a reboot cycle), or tracking of a piece of personal data from its collection to its purge from ../teaching_with_cases/ttreferencesthe system. If the units tracked, and the time over which they are tracked, are chosen carefully, they can point out critical information that may be overlooked in interviews or observations.

The day-in-the-life scenario is a less structured method of what is called "task analysis" in HCI circles [1]. Other task analysis methods (e.g. construction of task frequency tables) would be useful in some projects, but the primary purpose here is to acquaint students with a flexible method to illuminate gaps in their knowledge.

Careful construction of these scenarios allows students to see gaps in the story provided by their current data (e.g. what happens during shift changes?).


The combination of these three methods allows for cross-checking among the various stories offered by each method, and helps to promote a more comprehensive view of the use and operation of the system, and of the procedures associated with system use and operation.

If one were to do an SIS as part of a system design, it might be either more or less comprehensive than the/se, depending on the time, resources available, and the importance of the social and ethical issues involved.

Part of class discussion can center on how to make these difficult choices while still producing a product on time and within budget. These discussions will be more lively after students have some experience with their analysis and thus some idea of the importance of the issues they uncovered and the difficulty involved in the analysis.