How are encoders monitored to ensure that future software complies with laws, regulations and other guidelines?
– We have a set of rules, such as the EU Web Accessibility Directive, as well as a growing number of requirements associated with open data and data storage criteria. However, there are no guidelines that take a position on how software should be designed, except for accessibility and ease of use.
In other words, someone could design the Kela system to be oriented to the left or the right, or closer to traditional family values or modern values, while making sure that it respects the relevant accessibility criteria.
Software purchases are made by a person who writes the specifications.
However, this is preceded by the enactment by the legislator of a law relating, for example, to unemployment security. After that, someone involved in administration interprets what this law means for the system and tries to communicate the matter to others. Then, the designers and the coders try to set up, on the basis of this interpretation by the administrator, an information system putting into practice the understanding of the law by this person. This means that several types of translation take place in the process. The end result may or may not follow the original spirit of the law.
You came up with the idea of alternative operating systems. What are they?
– The political parties propose alternative budgets, that is to say their own versions of the budget drawn up by the government, to allow us, the citizens, to understand what the different parties would like to do. I wondered if we should communicate in the same way on key information systems. For example, if we had a Kela operating system implemented by the green left, the right could present an alternative system, illustrating how they think it should work.
Each party would have their own design team that would define what digital solutions should look like. This could be important for democracy, since our citizenship is relayed by digital systems.
Your group also explored views on digital solutions and environments across the Finnish political spectrum. What did you find out?
– We carried out a study (link in Finnish) in which we presented different user interfaces to policies; different options for the same. The aim was to reduce political polarization and the rapid exchange of words on social media. We received responses quickly, with study subjects describing their ideas in a very natural and open manner. However, their responses reflected their own party view of the world.
For Kokoomus (the National Coalition Party) and Perussuomalaiset (the Party of Finns), freedom of expression was very important. Again, Vihreät (the Greens) and Kokoomus endorsed the idea that peer-reviewed scientific papers should be included in the political debate. However, reading such articles requires a high level of education, and their inclusion in the system would exclude a large part of the voters. Responses from members of Keskusta (the Center Party) highlighted the community, including a type of village community.
Such research on the political elite can yield relevant knowledge about the political nature of user interfaces. Politics has a strong presence in all encounters between people and computers.
Why are user interfaces often difficult to use?
– For many reasons, but there are quite a number of interfaces that take time and effort. The University’s travel billing system is my personal experience of a poor user interface. Every time I pay my expenses I end up wondering if it’s worth trying to charge the University or if the amount is small enough that I pay it out of pocket.
Bad user interfaces can also arise, for example, from not understanding what users really want to do. Then you end up creating a system that people just have to live with.
Designing user interfaces that work well is expensive. Another big problem is that users have different priorities and requirements. They often want to do things exactly the way they always have.
Is ease of use the number one value of user interfaces?
– Much depends on what you want to do with the system and who its intended users are.
For example, if you are planning to launch nuclear weapons, the system can be designed to be complicated to force the user to think several times during the process. Therefore, the ease or difficulty with which a system can be used can also depend on what people are supposed to do with the system.
– Surveillance capitalism, the pursuit of profit through the use of personal data and the right balance between the common good and the economic good cause a lot of concern. But when people want to put more emphasis on the former, they forget that the common good is not an unequivocal concept. Different parties and ideologies have very different ideas about what the right kind of common good is and the right way to make things happen.
Facebook has asked governments for regulatory assistance, but instead of solving the problem it would turn it into an ideological struggle. Appealing to government does not solve the fundamental challenge of having systems with a range of values due to the pluralistic nature of society. You may come across values that make you think a mistake has been made, while those same values may be fine from someone else’s point of view.
However, it is important to understand that all man-made systems can be political in and of themselves, which is why the study of digital power is essential. Unfortunately, powerful institutions are often unwilling to be studied, but, again, data collection is not meant to be easy and straightforward.