Some ethics questions are black and white. Others, like in the case of the power industry who have good intentions to create an open design for their new smart grid, are more complicated than that.

There must be integrity and if you set out to deceive (such as the programmer for the Volkswagen engine tuning software that covertly changed during emission testing) then we can say there has been a breach of ethics. But other ethics statements are about being competent and doing good quality work. In some of these cases, we have to look at intentions as much as anything to see if ethics have been breached. I found myself thinking about this when I saw what was happening with the smart grid – an electricity supply network that uses digital communications technology to detect and react to local changes in usage.

One of the main criteria we might use to decide if there was a good quality design might be to judge if the design was “open” so that the clients could interface it to other systems. The idea of open architecture and even an open method of developing architectures (TOGAF) has been developed by the Open Group.

Sad to say, many systems are not built with open designs. The economic pressure to build proprietary systems that lock the purchaser into your brand is a very real fact of every software company’s life. To counteract that need, the customers must be very clear that they need something that is a flexible module to fit with their other systems. And even more key is that several customers must agree what the required modules are and what standards they must meet to fit together.

In the power industry, the use of IT has been increasing. They want to build a smart grid where alternative energy sources can contribute power at random times and customers can manage their power usage by seeing real-time feedback. A major player in the industry, Southern California Edison (SCE), has gathered key players to discuss the essential grid technology capabilities and roll-out SCE’s Grid Modernization program. SCE’s architecture team will define what capabilities are required and how they should fit together. Vendors will then be asked to show how their products fit in that picture.

No doubt each of those capabilities will be provided by proprietary code, but if the pieces fit into a larger architecture defined by standards that the industry (in this case power companies) agree to, can we then say the ethical requirement is met? Customers are not locked in, and so at least that essential need of the public is met.

The software vendors are showing good intentions by following standards set out by their customer community.

Having said all that, we can now go back and debate what other criteria should be required for a design to be good enough quality to be ethical.

How secure does a design have to prove it is – do we ever have to go beyond what the client asks for?

IT professionals are the ones that know the risks and have an ethical obligation to protect the client and the public. If they have good intentions and take some usability factors into consideration, do they always have to design for physical disabilities? What factors are the most important to incorporate to ensure your design is easy to maintain?

I would argue it is not ethical to create code that is a “lemon” and has high maintenance costs for the rest of it’s life.

Where do we draw the line and say the design is unethical and made with poor intentions? Share your thoughts below!

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