An Equity Guide for Techies

An Equity Guide for Techies is a workbook to help you think through what equity means for your projects, and how to build equitable goals into your work early. The workbook presents four exercises that help techie teams define and redefine success for a project by linking success criteria to equitable outcomes.

By the end of the workbook, MITRE’s Social Justice Team hopes you walk away with three outcomes:

  1. A sense of which group(s) of people are likely to benefit most from your efforts, or who might be at particular risk from inequitable results of your efforts, as well as ideas about who could tell you more about such potential benefits and risks.
  2. Intentionally establishing an equitable direction for your efforts, as well as actionable next steps for your team to take.
  3. A reliable process for incorporating equity into your efforts and emphasizing its role in your efforts.
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Written by a techie for a techie

A few years ago, I read a story about a psychiatrist who realized that Facebook’s “people you may know” algorithm was recommending her patients to each other as potential “friends,” since they were all visiting the same location. As an electrical engineer, my first reaction was that these are engineering problems that can be analyzed and fixed. However, they’re actually issues of equity.

More and more issues of equity in advanced technology, like the one above, are coming to light. None of my experiences prepared me or trained me to consider equity, nor did they equip me with tools to design tech with equity in mind. I needed to practice designing for equity to understand it, let alone get better at it.

So I created this “Equity for Techies” workbook because I wanted to make equity seem less foreign to my fellow techies.

AN EQUITY GUIDE FOR TECHIES cover page
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Do any of these feelings resonate with you?

If you’re

  • having difficulty thinking through the risks associated with the problem you are trying to address, or
  • unsure who might be negatively affected by your approach, or
  • trying to better understand an identified problem, or
  • developing a technological approach to solving a problem and are searching for an example to illustrate its value, or
  • chatting with people who might be affected by the problem, or
  • building or just about to launch a prototype,

then yes, this workbook might be a good fit.

And if

  • you’re proud of what you do
  • you want to help people
  • you’re making something that will affect other people or the environments we inhabit
  • you think technology can be used for good and for bad, but you’re unsure of how much you can influence those outcomes
  • you appreciate that we all come with our own biases and assumptions, which influence what we create
  • you think equity is important but don’t have the time to engage with it or know where to start if you did
  • you want to discuss the benefits of utilitarianism or the categorical imperative (nope, just kidding)

then you should absolutely go through the workbook.

Step 2 Visualization
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Technological harm follows patterns

These patterns can be categorized into eight technology risk zones (thank you to the Ethical Explorer guide team for their work*). Your project might repeat some of those patterns. However, each technology risk zone presents its own opportunity to build equity into your work. When you go through the workbook as a team, the exercises will help you review these historical patterns, walk away with a greater appreciation for the outcomes to avoid, and develop a sense of which populations might be at particular risk from the results of your effort. The workbook then asks you to prioritize those very group(s) of people who might be at risk, and create a new, equitable direction for your effort that aligns with the needs of the group(s) you want to serve.

*These come from the Ethical Explorer guide, published by the “socially-conscious investment firm,” Omidyar Network. See: https://ethicalexplorer.org/

Step 3 Visualization
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The workbook ends with 30 specific, actionable ideas to get you going

Changing our habits and patterns is hard, regardless of topic. Changing our thinking and actions around equity is really hard. It takes practice. It takes repetition. It takes help. That’s where these 30 ideas come in: to help get you going, and to help you become more accountable to each other and to the group(s) of people who stand to benefit most your work.

Engaging in this topic isn’t quick and it isn’t easy. But it’s important, because as techies our work affects others, whether we realize it or not, whether we intend to or not. Working on this together will help us all practice and get better. MITRE’s Social Justice Team hope you will share your successes and share your stumbles with us, and you’re always welcome to reach out at sjp@mitre.org.

Step 4 Visualization