The internet of things offers significant opportunities for improving the lives of those in social housing and for service provision. The University of Bristol, Royal Borough of Greenwich, Believe Housing, Bromford Labs, Homelync and Bristol City Council’s City Innovation Team are conducting research to ensure our work is ethically sound and leads to beneficial outcomes for all.
The benefits of IoT
Connected devices are delivering innovative pathways for overcoming housing issues across the board. In homes, sensors and environment monitoring are combined with artificial intelligence and machine learning to improve living conditions and ease safety concerns. Insights can shift maintenance from a reactive process to the proactive prediction of service faults and indoor environment degradation, preventing the escalation of potential issues. At a service level, the integration of data platforms improves the quality of insights, enabling housing providers to provide better services, ensure compliance and reduce costs.
Collectively, such insights are already contributing to the identification of fuel poverty in the UK and raising awareness of the detrimental health impacts of poor indoor air quality.
These insights are dependent on the monitoring and analysis of data, some of which are likely to be regarded as personal. Without understanding existing privacy perspectives and integrating them into their design, these innovations could be received with apprehension and limit the potential benefits.
Ethics in focus
Trust in technology has been impacted in recent years. Global corporations have endured scandals including Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica data breach and Google’s ‘antitrust’ investigations. Animosity towards ‘big tech’ has even entered the public lexicon: the term ‘techlash’ was included on the Oxford English Dictionary’s 2018 word of the year shortlist.
Further evidence of this erosion of trust is indicated by Edelman’s UK Trust Barometer 2020. It found that 60 per cent of respondents think technology is evolving too fast, 67 per cent worry technology is obscuring reality, and 72 per cent believe the government’s knowledge gap on new technology is a barrier to effective regulation.
Legitimate concerns exist over ‘data monetisation’ and what has been coined ‘surveillance capitalism’. Combined with the measurement of an increasingly wide set of social, cultural, behavioural and environmental indicators, alongside vast swathes of metadata, this may facilitate the use of seemingly ethically-benign information for unintended and unacceptable means. Further questions surround the elasticity of acceptability in exceptional circumstances, such as the tracking of Covid-19 or, more generally, where human welfare might be at severe risk.
A broader ethics for housing IT
The failure to develop broader, meaningful regulation for data commoditisation presents an opportunity to address fundamental issues while developing and designing emerging technologies. In housing IT, ethics have been addressed in customer experience and the integration of chatbots for customer service but there are many other aspects of social housing innovation that need consideration through this ethical lens.
These range from all aspects of system design, concerns related to privacy, data ownership and decision-making to more philosophical debates such as the meaning of home. Those with the relevant knowledge and expertise have a responsibility to address these concerns, not only from an ethical standpoint but also as good business practice.
How do we maximise the benefits without causing harm and then ensure those benefits are distributed fairly? Diffusion of technology is carried out on an uneven footing; imbalances exist in knowledge, experience and power. In social housing, these scales are tipped further still. Given the infancy of IoT in housing, an opportunity exists to define the principles and values by which it operates.
How do we do this and who decides? And who decides who decides? What tools, knowledge and experience are needed? By definition, innovation lacks precedent, so where do we look for guidance?
What do people want?
New technologies are often viewed with scepticism and resistance, particularly when they benefit the few but affect the many, or seemingly challenge human utility. Understanding the needs and expectations of those affected will be necessary. These will vary between and within groups, and across technologies and use cases.
For example, consider the example of temperature and humidity monitoring. Many may find insights for damp and mould extremely valuable, both for health and improving living conditions, while others could look upon such information as intrusive to their home lives.
Another key finding from Edelman shows that those who distrust innovations are more likely to think they are under-regulated, whereas those more informed are more convinced of their positive impact. The effective communication of any risks and benefits will be key in ensuring a constructive dialogue between relevant stakeholders.
Preliminary research with tenants in Leeds and York suggests that housing providers must strike a delicate balance when implementing IoT. From the earliest stage of our projects, we have engaged tenants to ensure they are well-informed and that any concerns are addressed, fostering positive relationships and a frictionless route to scaling up IoT.
Call to action
Issues with new technologies are not a modern phenomenon, an oft-cited example being the motor car. It enabled humans to travel much greater distances in shorter times but brought with it challenges such as pollution and safety. Concerns over ethics should not deter us from designing innovative IoT systems. Steps need to be taken to understand how ethics can be integrated.
To this end, Homelync is engaging in wider research with dozens of social landlords, technology suppliers and tenants. This work seeks to address just some of the questions posed above.
Our goal is to ascertain levels of acceptability to ensure ethical concerns are addressed and benefits are inclusive. The project will inform the development of an ethical framework for our work which we hope to extend throughout the sector.
As such, we would like to engage with the widest possible group of stakeholders. If your organisation is interested and would like to contribute to this research, please contact me (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Sam Collier is a research associate at the University of Bristol.