As public interest technology professionals, my peers and I work to improve the delivery of public services and to design better technology products that support those services. Whether in the middle of an intense development sprint, working with a tight deadline, or facing an even tighter budget, we’re also used to working quickly. Many of us rarely stop to take a deep breath.

But in most public interest technology projects, that is exactly what’s needed for the problem at hand. Not doing so can lead us to wrongly assume that we are solving the right problem the right way. This can lead to inequity, inaccessibility, and systemic racism being baked into a product or program’s design. Luckily, there’s an easy way to safeguard against this kind of oversight in the development process. Using the framework of the ethical pause, teams are forced to stop and ask questions that are designed to face these critical issues and to plan for how best to address them in their work.

In 2021, I led a cross-functional team of researchers working on a new program to address food insecurity in New York City. The research intended to explore whether or not a digital service ought to be developed. We saw an opportunity to pilot the concept of the ethical pause with the assistance of New York University’s Digital Interests Lab—a research collaborative that explores public accountability for emerging data technology. The Lab’s primary investigator (PI) and Director Anne L. Washington, PhD, describes an ethical pause as “a planned intervention for reflection to reorient teams toward shared values.” For our team, it was a short but deeply introspective activity during which our team members answered and debated questions related to the problem being solved while also identifying and deconstructing their own assumptions and biases that may be influencing the project.

The pause was brief and did not require significant disruption to research and development work. It consisted of: a pre-work survey; a single, one-hour facilitated conversation; and a report-out summary that sparked follow-up discussions over Slack. During the pause, we considered the ethical implications of our research and the program itself. We uncovered our own assumptions, biases, and interpretations of the problem and discussed how they could impact our work. As a result, the team developed research plans and a path forward for digital service procurement and delivery concerning these ethical implications. Ultimately, it helped the city build digital services that were designed with, not for, the New Yorkers that needed them most. We believe the use of an ethical pause is a valuable technique for any team or individual working to improve products or services and a critical addition to public sector projects.

Read the full article about ethical considerations by Amanda Miklik at Stanford Social Innovation Review.