15 Integrating Ethical Principles in AI

Insights from Indigenous Hack-a-thons

Dr. Miroslawa Alunowska Figueroa

Participating  in the Indigenous Hackathons, including Indigenous Hack4COVID and Indigenous FOSS4G Hackathon  has been a transformative experience profoundly influencing my approach to incorporating ethical principles into Artificial Intelligence (AI) development within RevAIsor, my startup that focuses on trustworthy AI. These Indigenous Hackathons have not only provided unique insights into the intersection of technology and Indigenous communities, but have also emphasised the critical importance of ethics in AI.

As a Mexican I am well aware that Indigenous communities have distinct worldviews, languages, and customs. Participating in these hackathons highlights the importance of cultural sensitivity in technology projects. This sensitivity emphasises the necessity of designing systems that respect and reflect the cultural values of the communities they serve.

Indigenous hackathons emphasise active community engagement and collaboration. This model of co-creation has instilled in me the value of involving the end-users, in this case, Indigenous communities, in the AI development process. This approach aligns with ethical AI principles, as it promotes transparency and inclusivity, ensuring that the technology serves the community’s interests.

Indigenous hackathons have highlighted the concept of data sovereignty within Indigenous communities. Understanding that data collected from these communities is owned by the communities and must be used ethically has reinforced my commitment to ethical data practices in AI development. This includes obtaining informed consent, respecting privacy, and sharing the benefits of AI fairly.


Unique Perspectives in Engineering for Climate Solutions

As a Mexican woman from a middle-class background, my journey in the field of engineering has been shaped by a unique intersection of experiences, values, and perspectives. Far from seeing my identity as a limitation, I view my intersectionality as an empowering lens through which I engage in engineering endeavours, particularly within the realm of sustainable and climate-focused solutions for communities. My experiences with cultural sensitivity, community engagement, and a strong ethical foundation have fortified my ability to create solutions that address real-world challenges in a holistic and equitable manner.

My intersectional identity has granted me a heightened sense of cultural sensitivity, allowing me to recognize the diverse needs and nuances of the communities I serve. It has instilled in me a profound respect for different cultural backgrounds and traditions, which is invaluable when engineering solutions for global challenges. By understanding the local context and respecting cultural values, my approach to sustainability solutions is not only technologically sound but also socially and environmentally sustainable. I firmly believe that these culturally sensitive, community-centred approaches are key to the long-term success of any engineering project.

Additionally, my middle-class background has grounded me in a strong ethical foundation that guides my work in engineering. I have come to appreciate the importance of ethical considerations, social responsibility, and the integration of environmental stewardship into engineering projects. I see these values as intrinsic to sustainable engineering, and they serve as my moral compass when tackling complex issues related to climate change and community well-being. My unique perspective as a Mexican woman with a middle-class upbringing enables me to integrate ethical and socially responsible principles into the engineering solutions I create, ensuring they not only mitigate environmental impact but also benefit all members of the community, particularly the marginalized and vulnerable. In this way, my intersectionality fuels a sense of purpose and drive to create transformative, holistic solutions that leave a lasting positive impact on our world.


Navigating Bias: Strategies for Women in Engineering

As a Mexican engineer and a woman in a field often characterised by biases and systemic challenges, my academic and professional journey has been marked by a commitment to breaking barriers and championing diversity and inclusivity. From my earliest experiences as an engineering student to my current role, I have encountered and overcome obstacles that stem from gender and cultural biases. Through this testimony, I aim to shed light on the strategies I have employed to manage these challenges.

In my academic pursuits, I often found myself in environments where female representation in engineering was limited. To overcome this gender bias, I focused on building a robust support network of mentors, both male and female, who provided guidance, encouragement, and opportunities to engage in impactful projects. Their mentorship not only bolstered my confidence but also helped me navigate the academic landscape effectively.

Professionally, I encountered stereotypes and expectations that at times threatened to overshadow my engineering acumen. To counteract these biases, I prioritised continuous self-improvement, setting high standards for myself and delivering quality work. Through perseverance, I gradually won the respect and trust of my colleagues, thereby reshaping perceptions and fostering an inclusive work culture. Moreover, I made it a point to participate in initiatives promoting diversity and equity, both within my organisation and the larger communities, such as the Indigenous Hackathons.

I view my journey as a testament to the power of resilience and a reminder that diversity in engineering is a strength, not a weakness. While biases and challenges persist, they do not define or limit us. Instead, they have propelled me to advocate for change, inspire future engineers, and contribute to a more equitable and innovative engineering field for all.


RevAIsor: Addressing Ethical Concerns in AI Technology

RevAIsor is a company dedicated to shaping the landscape of trustworthy AI. RevAIsor is committed to fostering trust and transparency in artificial intelligence systems, ensuring they serve as powerful tools for innovation while upholding ethical standards and regulatory compliance. The company’s mission is to harness the potential of cutting-edge technologies and innovative approaches to address the risks and challenges posed by AI biases, ethical concerns, and regulatory complexities. RevAIsor’s vision is a future where AI empowers positive change that is verifiable and trustworthy. By ensuring the quality, reliability, and robustness of AI systems, we are contributing to the development and deployment of safe, ethical and secure AI applications that can be trusted by businesses, consumers, and civil society.

The experiences gained from participating in the Indigenous hackathons have a direct bearing on my approach to evaluate trustworthy AI. I promote transparency in AI development, advocating for clear documentation of data sources, algorithms, and decision-making processes. This transparency builds trust and facilitates accountability, aligning with ethical AI principles. RevAIsor is a platform that allows us to evaluate that an AI solution respects and reflects the values and customs of the communities they impact. It also allows the evaluation of data ethics, including responsible data collection, handling, sharing, secure data storage to respect data sovereignty and privacy; these are at the core of an AI development process. Ultimately, RevAIsor aims to ensure that the technology serves the community’s needs while fostering trust and ownership. Finally, as a co-founder I emphasise the importance of diversity and inclusion within our teams. Though, I must say that in the engineering field there is considerably a smaller pool of female student population, and even smaller population of Indigenous background, as it seems that having access to basic education is one of the barriers for Indigenous communities to have access to university education.


Integrating Indigenous Knowledge with Geospatial Technologies: A Case Study in Successful Collaboration

The integration of Indigenous knowledge with geospatial technologies is a powerful testament to the potential for transformative innovation. In 2021, I had the privilege of participating in the Indigenous Hackathon, an event dedicated to leveraging technology for the benefit of Indigenous communities. Alongside co-designer Benard Odhiambo and Indigenous Samburu woman Lilian Nguracha, we embarked on an inspiring project that resulted in the creation of the Naapu Ntomonok App. This app exemplifies a successful fusion of Indigenous knowledge and cutting-edge geospatial technology, offering a real solution to the daily challenges faced by Samburu Community women in Northern Kenya, particularly in the context of water access.

Lilian Nguracha, a Samburu community member, submitted the Naapu Ntomonok challenge as part of  the Indigenous FOSS4G Hackathon. The challenge revolved around the critical need for women in the region to access essential services in a water-stressed environment. The app’s innovative solution empowers Samburu women by enabling them to locate moving markets, hospitals, water pipes, and local dispensaries. The app leverages geospatial technology to provide crucial information that was previously inaccessible. This not only eases the daily burden of navigating essential services in a challenging environment but also enhances the quality of life and opportunities for women in the community.

One of the most remarkable aspects of the Naapu Ntomonok App is its focus on community well-being. The app offers women free access to medical services, medicines, and valuable training, addressing not only immediate health needs but also the long-term capacity building of the community. The project’s commitment to sustainability and empowerment is truly commendable, with implications reaching far beyond the mere provision of geospatial data.

Despite the groundbreaking potential of the Naapu Ntomonok app, a significant challenge remains: the lack of funding to fully implement this life-changing solution. As demonstrated by our presentation at the COP26’s Space & Geospatial Virtual Pavilion, held on 8th November 2021, there is international recognition of the value and impact of such projects. To realize the full potential of this integration of Indigenous knowledge and technology, it is imperative to secure the resources needed to ensure the app’s accessibility and sustainability for the Samburu community and potentially for other Indigenous communities facing similar challenges. The Naapu Ntomonok app is a testament to the potential for innovative solutions that emerge when Indigenous knowledge and advanced technology converge, and its success underscores the urgent need for support and funding to realize the profound change it can bring to communities worldwide.


Fostering Inclusivity: Advice for Aspiring Indigenous Technologists in Engineering Careers

For aspiring Indigenous and underrepresented individuals looking to embark on careers in engineering and technology, the journey can indeed be challenging, but it’s one filled with boundless opportunities for growth and impact. The first piece of advice may sound like a cliché, but it’s fundamental: believe in yourself. Embrace and celebrate your unique identity, for it is your greatest strength. Trust in your abilities and the potential within you, even in the face of adversity. Remember, it’s not just about reaching the destination; it’s about enjoying the ride. You have the right to pursue your passion, so don’t let anyone belittle or dismiss your aspirations.

As an underrepresented individual, be prepared to face hurdles, but also be brave and resilient. Take constructive feedback to heart; it’s a pathway to growth. If one door closes, rest assured that many others remain open. The path to success often involves creating your own opportunities. In addition, define your career goals, setting both short-term and long-term objectives. This not only keeps you motivated but also helps maintain your focus on the bigger picture. While you’re at it, dare to dream big.

In terms of practical considerations, securing financial resources for education can be a significant challenge. Seek out scholarships, grants, or part-time work to fund your education. If possible, consider starting your own business. Building a robust professional network is crucial; connect with mentors, join tech communities, organisations, and clubs. The advantage is that today, with remote opportunities, it’s easier than ever. Look for internships that can provide you with valuable experience and networking opportunities.

As you begin your journey, create a GitHub profile and update your LinkedIn to showcase your projects and skills. The technology industry moves at a rapid pace, so commit to continuous learning and skill development. It’s essential to recognize your worth – your work deserves fair compensation. Don’t work for free; your talents have value. Lastly, maintain a positive and optimistic mindset. Visualise your goals, and let the principles of energy flow guide you towards a future filled with achievement and fulfilment. Remember, you have the power to shape your own destiny in the world of engineering and technology.

About the author

Dr. Miroslawa Alunowska Figueroa is a passionate Mexican engineer with a keen interest in exploring the dynamic interaction between technology and its impact on society. Her journey in the field of engineering began with a deep fascination for how innovative technologies have the power to shape and transform communities for the better.

Born and raised in Mexico City, Miroslawa’s early exposure to technological advancements ignited her curiosity, and she soon developed a vision to bridge the gap between cutting-edge technology and its meaningful applications in society. Fuelled by this vision, she pursued a Bachelor’s degree in Chemical Engineering at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, the most internationally recognised university in Mexico, where she excelled academically earning the Magna Cum Laude.

Miroslawa’s commitment to understanding the broader implications of technology led her to embark on a remarkable academic journey. Intrigued by the complex interplay between technology, society, and business, she pursued a Master’s degree in Engineering. Driven by her unwavering passion for creating a more inclusive and diverse technological landscape, Miroslawa was drawn to further her education and expertise in the field. Recognizing the University of Oxford’s reputation as a world-renowned institution fostering cutting-edge research and embracing diversity, she decided to pursue a DPhil in Engineering Science. Throughout her doctoral studies at Oxford, Miroslawa’s research focused on developing innovative approaches to address societal challenges through technology. Her work centered around leveraging artificial intelligence for social good, and exploring ways to enhance technological accessibility for reclaimed water management. Beyond her academic pursuits, Miroslawa has been an ardent advocate for gender equality and diversity in engineering and business spaces. She actively participates in initiatives that promote women’s representation in STEM fields and fosters a supportive environment for underrepresented groups in technology. She participates in hackathons to develop solutions to underrepresented communities such as Indigenous Communities, where she delved deeper into the ethical and social considerations of technological innovations.

Outside of her engineering endeavors, Miroslawa enjoys indulging in her creative side through hobbies like yoga, ballet, and fashion and jewelry design. These passions provide her with a well-rounded perspective, emphasizing the importance of combining artistic expression with scientific innovation. As a trailblazer in the field of technology and a driving force for inclusivity, Dr Miroslawa Alunowska Figueroa continues to inspire the next generation of engineers and leaders. She was the winner of two ”Indigenous Hackathons” and has worked extensively with the Samburu tribe in Kenya co-designing apps with and for the community.  With her dedication to creating a more equitable and transformative technological landscape, she strives to leave a lasting impact on society and pave the way for a brighter, more interconnected future.

You can read more about Alunowska Figueroa’s work here.


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Integrating Ethical Principles in AI Copyright © 2023 by Dr. Miroslawa Alunowska Figueroa is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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