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Research: Technology

Ethics Education for Participatory Sensing


PI: Deborah Estrin, UCLA Computer Science
Co-PI: Jeff Burke, UCLA REMAP & CENS; Mark Hansen, UCLA Statistics; Jim Waldo, Sun Microsystems.
Lead Graduate Student: Katie Shilton, UCLA Information Studies


The mobile phone network is emerging as the largest sensor network on the planet. Mobile phone users, however, are generally unaware of the dual uses of this network, in which their communication devices are also information gathering devices. In participatory urban sensing, everyday mobile devices become a platform for coordinated investigation of the environment and human activity. But transforming phones into data collection instruments raises both technical and ethical challenges.

The PI believes that researchers should utilize this network of sensors with the consent and active participation of users. Facilitating responsible, socially trusted, and participatory ethics for data collection and analysis with urban sensing systems remains an open problem, and is the challenge undertaken in this research and education project. In this project, the PI and her team will formalize and qualitatively assess an important test case in participatory ethics: a participatory approach to managing privacy in urban sensing applications. They will create both an immersion curriculum (using a hands-on laboratory approach) and an interdisciplinary seminar-style curriculum to teach participatory ethics for urban sensing to diverse STEM undergraduate and graduate students, and will evaluate these curricula and synthesize classroom findings into best practices which will then be disseminated for education in participatory urban sensing ethics to urban sensing, ubiquitous computing, and broader technology education communities through white papers, guest lectures, video presentations and discussions, and an active website.

Broader Impacts: This work will benefit many areas of mobile and ubiquitous technology research. The multidisciplinarity and rapid pace of system development, the social diversity of users, and the diversity of urban sensing applications are exhilirating yet pose significant challenges to developing a participatory ethics framework. Much as traditional human subjects research guidelines apply to a broad and diverse research scope, the PI believes that similarly powerful principles can be specified for human sensing research. The pedagogical tools developed in the education phase of this project will train a diverse group of STEM students to align technological advances with human practices and ethics. Involving students in discussions and practical implementation of participatory ethics will integrate considerations of values into their research and design practice. Students and researchers trained in participatory urban sensing ethics will design systems that reflect participatory ethics and balance technical and human values. Students will also bring the ethical thinking and value commitments formed during their education to careers in academia, technology industries, and policy arenas. As a critical test case in participatory ethics for urban sensing, formalizing and refining participatory privacy regulation will contribute to fields struggling with meaningful privacy design, including mobile and ubiquitous computing, social networking, and web community systems design.

National Science Foundation Award IIS-0832873.