Ethical data and design

Ethical data and design

When ethical design is practiced, it can be made clear that a company exists to help others, not only themselves.

“When you hear the word data, what’s the first thing that comes to mind?”

Numbers. Security. Technology. Accuracy. Truth. Information. Proof. Privacy. People. 

The definition of data, “facts and statistics collected together for reference or analysis,” is actually quite straightforward. People tend to assume they don’t understand data, because it’s generally put in front of them within a context they are unfamiliar with. The challenge is actually analyzing the content that defines it. 


drawing timeline

Figure 1.1

I’d like to start by putting data into a perspective that’s hopefully less complex from the typical association to scientific algorithms; artistic expression

When you think of drawing or taking a photo, what’s the goal? To capture something that can be of use later. In one case, the use may be to look back and relive a memory or experience a feeling. In another, it may be the final clue to end an ongoing investigation. There’s a wide range of possibilities on how it may be used, but the image remains the same. Just as data would.

While an exact moment in time isn’t literally being captured, information that could be needed as use of reference is. 

As seen in Figure 1.1, drawings have been crucial to human innovation and communication. Let’s look closely at when Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei explained the changing phases of the moon through his observational drawings. In 1609, using this early version of the telescope, Galileo became the first person to record observations of the sky made with the help of a telescope.

moon drawings of galileo galilei

Advanced technology allowed Galileo to identify evidence that, to our knowledge, were not completely missing, but unidentified. By closely observing recurring trends (positioning of the stars, craters, sunspots, etc.) he was able to make a discovery that could be validated by proof. 

Before making things too complicated, we can see that in this case, a new form of technology was used to gather better data

Galileo was not the first person to observe the moon through this exact telescope. And while he was able to find what he needed through this device, he still had to record the data elsewhere to be analyzed and shared. People trusted Galileo and the data he provided, because they lacked the access to the resources and knowledge surrounding the meaning of each moon phase. 

When it comes to this large-scale comparison to a highly trusted source like NASA and the discovery of our solar system, it’s easy to trust them. Why? Because NASA is known as a reliable source of information. But this credibility is earned, and not something all big data companies have; reasonably causing fear to those who value truth. 

businessman and a city using a tablet o

So why do we trust technology?

Sticking with our reference to art, technology uses numbers as symbols. These numbers create an entirely new language (code) that we are all familiar with from a visual standpoint, but not comprehensive. We see the thing we want on our screen and are happy with that. 

What many don’t know to exist are the lines of code that make up what we see.

On an iPhone, data organizes our photo library by any specific time, location, or even facial recognition. It’s easier for one to understand the time the photo was taken, but how is my phone able to tell that the person in my last photo is the same person I took a photo with at high school graduation five years ago?

Because someone who does understand was able to create an algorithm that uses data to identify facial recognition patterns. Not just based on your data, but the additional data that have been gathered from billions of Apple products over the years.

Once the algorithm is made, it can be used repeatedly amongst contexts (my phone vs. yours). The digital language is universal. 

What is not, is the way the information may then be used and/or supervised. This is where things get complicated, and where it is necessary to define the concept of ethical design.

“Ethical design is designing great products alongside your morals and beliefs and the principles of your business. What you create, whether a website, a marketing campaign or a product, has an effect on real people and those effects can create ripples.” 

When ethical design is practiced, it can be made clear that a company exists to help others, not only themselves.


slot machines, social dilemma, data analytics

The social dilemma

Netflix’s 2020 documentary, “The Social Dilemma” allows us to sit with former early-stage employees from major social media companies such as Facebook, Twitter, and Google. Of those being interviewed, we hear from former developers, engineers, monetization directors and co-inventors, scaling back to involvement as early as the Facebook like button. Interviewing these particular roles for the documentary is a powerful assurance strategy. We can assume that of all people, these creators will speak upon the honest foundation of these platforms better than anyone else. 

Within the first few minutes of the documentary, Alex Roetter former SVP of Engineering at Twitter paints a picture of how things are not quite the same as they were in 2010. “When I was there, I always felt like fundamentally it was a force for good. I don’t know if I feel that way anymore. These things, you release them, and they take on a life of their own.”

Through similar discussions, we learn there is far more than one “social dilemma.” One being that social network platforms are designed with positive intermittent reinforcement in mind, exploiting users similarly to slot machines in Vegas. Meaning that over time, these designers and engineers knew exactly what they were doing as social media grew to exist as a manipulative form of gathering behavioral information. What then generates fear, is the unknowing of where this information goes, and who has access to it. 

 “All of this data that we’re just pouring out all the time is being fed into systems that have almost no human supervision, that are making better and better predictions about what we’re gonna do and who we are.” – Former FB Operations Manager, Sandy Parakilas 

This is absolutely not the case with every software. Companies who create with human-oriented intentions should find no challenge in making customers feel comfortable about where their data is going and coming from. 

Our UX Design Manager, Emily Adelman, is a primary caregiver for her father who battles Parkinson’s disease. She had to learn every detail about his medical requirements in addition to communicating with his doctors, knowing medications, and helping him prepare for long term care. She notes how she “was able to design the patient portal with the exact lens of our users because I am the user.”

secure data, data analytics, history, social dilemma

Data supervision

We live in a world where it can be hard to feel comfortable making decisions. A webinar I recently attended discussed current data and analytics concerns for global enterprises. VP analyst Andrew White vocalized that  “our job isn’t to be smarter, but to help our business leaders to become smarter and make better informed decisions.” 

Those who understand the context in which data is given can identify challenges and weaknesses, and predict opportunities that others cannot. 

With our software, Theralytics, we encourage therapists to be analysts. The knowledge is there. The hard work has been put in. What’s been missing for far too long has been access to reliable, supervised data. 



Oxford English Dictionary

“Galileo’s Observations of the Moon, Jupiter, Venus and the Sun.” NASA, 24 February 2009,

“Defining Better Data.” Kayla Porter, 17 May 2021,

“The Principles of Ethical Design (and how to use them.)” Carrie Sownie, 2021,

The Social Dilemma 

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