The Digital Powerwash
Are the Digital Tools You Employ Reflecting Your Values?
The process of digitalisation in organisations leads to numerous questions. For example, how well will a (software) tool perform its required functionality? How does it integrate with established processes? How much money does it cost to implement? And what about maintenance?
Yet one question often seems to be forgotten: Does the (software) tool, as we employ it, reflect the values of our organisation?
This question has become increasingly important with the rampant data gathering, hoarding, and, frankly, abuse of technology by big multinational technology corporations. Do we really want to employ digital tools created by companies with values often diametrically opposed to those of our own organisation?
Finding out if software tools reflect your values
This question may not be a top priority for private commercial organisations yet, but it is a very valid and important question for public organisations with responsibilities beyond profit making. These organisations, which we term «values-led organizations» (Bogaerts et al., 2023), include municipal governments, state agencies,
They are expected and often
required by law to commit
to uphold, and protect values
such as transparency and
public broadcasters, educational (research) institutions, libraries, archives, healthcare institutions, cultural organisations, and NGOs. They are expected and often required by law to commit to, uphold, and protect values such as transparency and accountability.
‹The Digital Powerwash› is the name of a practical approach striving to ‹quantify› how well a pre-determined set of public values is reflected in a (software) tool. It originated from the Dutch public broadcaster VPRO and is currently being developed by PublicSpaces, a non-profit foundation in The Netherlands consisting of more than forty different organisations. At the moment, 17 organisations have used the approach to investigate more than 40 different (software) tools: e.g., for content management, videoconferencing, and data analysis.
How ‹the digital powerwash› works
Angela Zuyderwijk, IT project manager at The Amsterdam Public Library (OBA) has been using ‹The Digital Powerwash› to support the library’s mission for a year now: «As a library with 27 locations throughout Amsterdam and limited resources, we are always looking for instruments that can help us achieve our mission: to ensure all inhabitants can participate in our information society and no one is left behind» (A. Zuyderwijk, personal communication, January 28, 2023)
‹The Digital Powerwash› consists of three elements: a questionnaire with 25 questions (PublicSpaces, n.d.), a website to publicly share results, and a digital badge to publicly display participation in the ‹The Digital Powerwash›. It builds upon the PublicSpaces manifesto, which, among other things, describes a set of five public values: ‹Openness›, ‹Transparency›, ‹Accountability›, ‹Sovereignty›, and ‹User Centrism› (PublicSpaces, 2021). Organisations choose one or more (software) tools to self-audit using the questionnaire. Each audit results in a score indicating how well a tested (software) tool aligns with the described values.
«We already have a set application landscape with numerous agreements with suppliers. It will not be possible to turn this whole landscape upside down overnight. There are situations in which we cannot see any other option than to use products or services from Bigtech. We can, however, measure to what extent the values of the application correspond to those of the OBA, start conversations with existing suppliers, test every possible new application, be as transparent as possible about our choices and open for suggestions.» (A. Zuyderwijk, personal communication, January 28, 2023)
Test results must be shared with PublicSpaces and are published on ‹The Digital Powerwash› website. After having tested and published the results of at least one (software) tool, a participating organisation may display the PublicSpaces badge. Participation is mandatory for organisations that are part of the PublicSpaces coalition. «Participation in ‹The Digital Powerwash› has contributed to more responsible application use. We’ve noticed an increase in knowledge and awareness. It enables us to make an informed decision per application and thus slowly reshape our architecture.» (A. Zuyderwijk, personal communication, January 28, 2023)
Lessons learned and next steps
‹The Digital Powerwash› helps in raising awareness and starting conversations within an organisation about (software) tools and how these relate to the values of the organisation. It does not yet function as an instrument ‹quantifying› how well a certain pre-determined set of public values is reflected in a (software) tool,
The Digital Powerwash helps
in raising awareness.
which would be useful when selecting value-based (software) tools or as a benchmark, two of PublicSpaces’ goals.
We have set up an open and public process to revise the questionnaire into two tools: a conversation starter and an instrument striving to ‹quantify› how well a certain pre-determined set of public values is reflected in a (software) tool. We would like to investigate how we may adjust or extend the current set of five public values. We have started conversations with academic institutions in Utrecht interested in the approach and strive towards collaborating with them. Ultimately, PublicSpaces’ goal with ‹The Digital Powerwash› is to help public organisations transform their digital environment into healthy public-values-based digital environments.