Black Researchers Lead the Call to Teach Ethics and Equity to the Tech Industry

Two African-American professors at Columbia University are spearheading efforts to introduce social work students to the field of technology. The unlikely merger of the two fields aims to help humanize technology by preparing social workers for an ever-evolving technologized world.

Designed and spearheaded by associate professors Dr. Desmond Patton and Dr. Courtney Cogburn, courses will be offered as a minor to students earning degrees at the Columbia School of Social Work. The concentration, debuting fall semester, intends to help humanize technology by preparing social workers for an ever-evolving technologized world.

From racial profiling through facial recognition software used by law enforcement to algorithms that unfairly target Black and brown users with subpar services and subprime financial practices, by placing social science professionals and communities at the table with data scientists, designers, and engineers, Patton and Cogburn are hopeful that ethics training will help turn the tide.

We’re trying to create conversations around technology and race and the experiences of people of color left out of those conversations, explained Patton, who also co-leads Columbia’s AI for All Initiative and directs the university’s SAFElab research initiative focused on examining the ways in which youth of color navigate violence on and offline.

Students will be required to take at least three courses within the field of study, such as: Introduction to Emergent Technology, Media, and Society; Hacking for Social Impact; Data Science and Public Policy; and Statistical Thinking with Python Lab.

Critical to the program will be in-field experiences, including internships or research opportunities with companies like Facebook and Google companies where Patton sees students in the social work program finding well-paying jobs where they are able to use their credentials.

Our goal is to train a 21st-century social worker that has input and a voice in how technologies are developed and the implications and ramifications of how those technologies impact diverse communities, he said.

The push to create technological literacy among social work students highlights an evolving trend of academic and research institutions attempting to address disparities and bias in technology.

Ethics is the New Black

The concern for ethics within the field of technology is not entirely new, but has become a trending topic as companies like Facebook have fallen under public scrutiny following its handing off of user data to research firm Cambridge Analytica who misused private information, helping clients meddle in the 2016 election.

Last year, top universities like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard, Stanford, and Georgetown introduced new coursework geared toward teaching ethics to engineering students across a variety of disciplines.

Long-standing programs around human-centered design, like the University of Washington’s department for Human-Centered Design & Engineering (HCDE), centered their curriculum in 2009 for all levels of degree and certificate programs with the mission to prioritize the needs, desires, and behaviors of people and communities who interact through sociotechnical systems. Notable graduates of HCDE include entrepreneur and roboticist Jasmine Lawrence who’s held management roles at Microsoft, SoftBank Robotics, and currently, Facebook; and David Harris who spent years teaching underrepresented middle school students in programs like the Technology Access Foundation, before heading up the City of Seattle’s startup initiatives and eventually moving back into tech as a UX researcher at Microsoft.

HBCUs Keep Watch

In March, 21 universities came together to form the Public Interest Technology University to better understand the consequences of technology’s impact on society.

Of the listed 21 universities, Howard University is the only Historically Black College to enter the fold. However, this does not denote a lack of commitment of other Black colleges to introduce ethics training to their crop of future tech professionals.

At North Carolina A&T University, coursework on the impact of technology are taught within the college of engineering. Tuskegee University introduced a cybersecurity-focused engineering degree program in 2018 featuring a certificate course in ethical hacking. In late June, Fayetteville State University also launched its cybersecurity program and ethical hacking certification course.

Racial Literacy Within Tech

Addressing bias through the practice of humanizing tech across industries does not altogether eliminate racial disparities and inequality. The impetus behind Patton and Cogburn’s new program furthers their call for critical discussion to happen around the impact of new technology  tools and how they will be used in diverse communities. 

My hope is that we’re shifting the field of social work and not just in traditional spaces we’ve been. But [in] our way of thinking, the way we work with communities, and how we treat people,  should infiltrate technology as well, said Patton.

Sherrell Dorsey

She is the founder and CEO of The Plug—a distinctive, Black tech news and insights platform covering Black innovators in tech, venture capital, future of work policy, and more. Follow Sherrell on Twitter @Sherrell_Dorsey.