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An Essential Step in Digital Service Development

Laptop monitor with nine people in a video call.

(Illustration by iStock/askmenow)

As public interest technology professionals, my peers and I work to improve the delivery of public services and to design better technology products that support those services. Whether in the middle of an intense development sprint, working with a tight deadline, or facing an even tighter budget, we’re also used to working quickly. Many of us rarely stop to take a deep breath.

But in most public interest technology projects, that is exactly what’s needed for the problem at hand. Not doing so can lead us to wrongly assume that we are solving the right problem the right way. This can lead to inequity, inaccessibility, and systemic racism being baked into a product or program’s design. Luckily, there’s an easy way to safeguard against this kind of oversight in the development process. Using the framework of the ethical pause, teams are forced to stop and ask questions that are designed to face these critical issues and to plan for how best to address them in their work.

In 2021, I led a cross-functional team of researchers working on a new program to address food insecurity in New York City. The research intended to explore whether or not a digital service ought to be developed. We saw an opportunity to pilot the concept of the ethical pause with the assistance of New York University’s Digital Interests Lab—a research collaborative that explores public accountability for emerging data technology. The Lab’s primary investigator (PI) and Director Anne L. Washington, PhD, describes an ethical pause as “a planned intervention for reflection to reorient teams toward shared values.” For our team, it was a short but deeply introspective activity during which our team members answered and debated questions related to the problem being solved while also identifying and deconstructing their own assumptions and biases that may be influencing the project.

The pause was brief and did not require significant disruption to research and development work. It consisted of: a pre-work survey; a single, one-hour facilitated conversation; and a report-out summary that sparked follow-up discussions over Slack. During the pause, we considered the ethical implications of our research and the program itself. We uncovered our own assumptions, biases, and interpretations of the problem and discussed how they could impact our work. As a result, the team developed research plans and a path forward for digital service procurement and delivery concerning these ethical implications. Ultimately, it helped the city build digital services that were designed with, not for, the New Yorkers that needed them most. We believe the use of an ethical pause is a valuable technique for any team or individual working to improve products or services and a critical addition to public sector projects.

The Problem

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, New York City was faced with the problem of increased food insecurity for hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers. Traditional food delivery services were inaccessible to them due to cost, while public health restrictions impacted their ability to receive assistance to shop for or prepare food. The GetFood NYC program was born from this gap.

At its peak, GetFood NYC delivered approximately one million prepared meals per day to roughly 400,000 New York City households. Options were designed to reflect the diversity of New York City’s population. They included vegetarian, Kosher, and Halal meals and, when available, pan-Asian, and Hispanic meals as well.

Like many pandemic social services programs, though, GetFood NYC was not intended to last indefinitely. The program was scheduled to end in October 2021. Even after a year of the program’s existence, eligible New Yorkers were still enrolling in the program for the first time. It quickly became clear that the city needed a new solution to address the overwhelming issue of food insecurity, which the pandemic had only deepened.

In order to develop a successful and sustainable program that would extend or replace GetFood NYC, the city government needed to better understand the needs of New Yorkers experiencing food insecurity and how to best meet those needs.

In April 2021, a multidisciplinary team came together to explore options for a more sustainable program. The project was jointly run by the City of New York Mayor’s Offices for Food Policy, Economic Opportunity, and the Chief Technology Officer. At the request of the city, New America was enlisted to assist with preliminary research with the possibility of providing additional assistance later on depending on the ultimate trajectory and needs of the project. The final team consisted of five people with expertise in user experience research, design, and product management.

The Research

Our team began by looking into the characteristics of GetFood NYC enrollees and why they had enrolled. Where are they located within the city? How do their demographics break down across boroughs? Have they applied for or participated in SNAP or other benefits programs? What are their technology access capabilities?

We also asked about the human-centered side of the program: What caused participants to enroll? How has the program been helpful? Where has it fallen short? What would an ideal food assistance program look like?

Additionally, we explored aspects of other previously successful programs that addressed food insecurity. As the research progressed, we began to ask more specific questions via surveys and interviews with individuals participating in GetFood NYC and—a critical element—those who were eligible but not enrolled.

Through our research, two additional questions came to the team’s attention: Who is not being served by the current GetFood NYC program who should be? Why not?

The Ethical Pause: How It Worked

Questions about who was being missed by the GetFood NYC program and why directed the team to conduct the ethical pause with the Lab’s assistance. In May 2021, the team sat down with the Lab’s Jonathan Chin, who has nearly a decade’s worth of experience working with food insecure communities, and David Morar who has a doctorate in public policy and serves as the Lab’s 2020-2022 postdoctoral fellow.

Our team of researchers and stakeholders, led by Chin and Morar, did what public interest technology teams are not always known for doing—we slowed down and took a deep breath. In total, the ethical pause took about a day’s worth of work.

The goal of the ethical pause was for us to gain a new perspective on the issue of addressing food insecurity while also looking at how our own roles, skills, assumptions, and biases influenced design concepts for the new program. This reflection emerged from classroom exercises Professor Washington developed to encourage consistency between research assumptions and problem-solving on the ground.

Prior to the ethical pause meeting, all team members were asked to anonymously answer the following five questions:

  • What do you think is the need that the project is solving?
  • How are you thinking about and interacting with the concerns (grievances) of your service population?
  • What is the most important issue that should be tackled by the team and the project? 
  • How are you thinking about equity?
  • What are you most worried about the project in terms of harms?

After each team member independently answered the questions, the team, guided by Chin and Morar, came together for an hour to discuss the anonymous answers and deliberate over how they impacted our work to address ongoing food insecurity in NYC.

By answering and discussing these questions and answers together, we gained better insight into our own processes, values, and presuppositions. We thoughtfully considered how those elements might be influencing data collection, systems creation, and technology adoption. And we took a deep look at the question: Are we solving the right problems?

The Takeaways

Even though we had been working together on the same project for over a month, each question asked in our ethical pause yielded a variety of answers from the team. For example, question three (“What is the most important issue that should be tackled by the team and the project?”) uncovered some broader concerns team members had that were not explicitly written into project goals but could influence research plans going forward.

All of the answers were valid and important takes on the questions we were posing in our research, as well as the larger problem we were solving for. But the answers also revealed that we were each approaching the issues and the work to be done from very different perspectives. Some team members were focused on the immediacy of starting the research process itself while others were thinking about things in much broader terms.

Taking an ethical pause allowed us to clarify and share each of our perspectives, focus our goals as a team, and intentionally consider the needs of those supported by programs to address food insecurity.

Through the discussions that followed, the team developed shared goals and focus, and also identified ways to better address issues of inequity, inaccessibility, and systemic racism within our program research and digital service design.

First, we achieved clarity on how to best measure the success of the new program (e.g., enrollment numbers vs. participant satisfaction) Next, the questions led us to a more thorough understanding of how systemic racism impacts service design and delivery, especially within the context of New York City.

This thinking in turn led us to the following conclusions:

  1. It is critical to involve leaders and activists who are already addressing food insecurity in NYC.
  2. We need to define “quality” when it comes to the food—not just the program.
  3. We need to understand and account for access issues.
  4. We must learn how to structure the program in a way that is responsive to the shifting needs of New Yorkers.

The Wrap Up

By taking this ethical pause for less than one day, we were able to solidify our team perspective and goals. More importantly, we were able to quickly identify areas of untapped potential and unaddressed concerns that may have taken months to discover through the typical process of trial, testing, and refining.

After conducting the ethical pause, our team was better prepared to refine our research methods to ensure that we were building a program that was designed with and by (rather than “for”) New Yorkers by checking our own biases and asking questions that would spur us to further our reach. It informed questions our research team could bring to a “pre-mortem” process of figuring out possible ways the program could fail, especially with regard to digital aspects of the program’s delivery.

How and Why All Public Interest Technology Teams Can Benefit From an Ethical Pause

Whether you are working on issues of food insecurity, transit, housing, or any other area of public services, solving the right problems requires asking the right questions. As we learned, this includes not only questions about qualitative and quantitative data, but also questions regarding our own roles, skills, assumptions, and biases. This type of reflection requires a team to pause and take the time to actually ask and answer them. Though it takes intention and a little bit of preparation, it is not a difficult or time-consuming technique to implement and there are numerous benefits to be found for any team working to improve the world.

Practical Benefits of Taking an Ethical Pause

“Taking the time to remember ethics builds more specific, credible, and valid technology,” says Professor Washington. Taking an ethical pause early on in your service/product development has the potential to save both time and money. Pausing allows the team to more fully consider whether or not the right problem is being solved and, if not, how to shift strategy and proceed. Taking time for reflection may uncover insights that would have otherwise taken weeks or months of trials and testing to discover.

Pausing also increases your teams’ awareness of their own expertise, roles, and assumptions early on and helps identify gaps in knowledge or experience that may have a negative impact on your work. Knowing where these gaps are can spur action to quickly involve stakeholders with information, perspectives, and experiences that increase the likelihood of success for your project. This may be particularly helpful in the early stages of a project where time and resources are often spent on testing, refining, and building trust with your targeted communities but can be a useful exercise at any stage.

Having a clear picture of where you are as a team can also reveal a clearer path ahead. Taking an ethical pause can help identify potential roadblocks or curves before they become problems. The pause may also guide your team to creating more adaptable, responsive, and scalable solutions to address a problem. Additionally, the clarity brought by an ethical pause will allow your team to build a unified voice to explain and promote your project throughout all phases of research, development, and launch.

As an added bonus, working together to reflect and develop common focus and goals through the process of an ethical pause builds a stronger and more resilient team. When you understand where each person is coming from and what talents they bring with them, the team is better able to utilize and support each individual member. Team members will also have the opportunity to grow as human beings, professionals, and leaders, which will lead to increased success for future projects, as well.

Human-Centered Benefits of Taking an Ethical Pause

The benefits of taking an ethical pause go far beyond the bottom line. Acknowledging and addressing the background, and biases of team members and the team as a whole will begin to highlight gaps in knowledge and experience caused by a lack of representation. This is the first step in addressing and repairing much of the inequity in our projects and in our society at large.

By taking an ethical pause, we are each reminded of and asked to ruminate on both the good we are attempting to do in the world and the potential harm that could come from ignoring our assumptions and biases, not listening to those we seek to support, or by implementing a program that fails to address the core problem from the start. The ethical pause encourages us to design programs with the communities we serve and with other organizations and leaders working in these communities rather than designing programs for the communities we serve—attempting to talk over those already doing the work.


In service and product design, examining ethics is a responsible necessity rather than an intellectual luxury. Taking the time for an ethical pause means taking the time to ask the right questions and to really listen to the answers. Those building public services will build better services faster if they include time for an intentional, team-wide pause to address ethics.

The collaboration between New America, the project’s research team, and Professor Washington’s Digital Interests Ethics Lab at NYU brought together theory and practice for ethics in public interest technology. Professor Washington’s forthcoming book is based on her Ethics of Data Science course.

In the beginning phases of program development, it may seem impossible to slow down and take a deep breath, but if we are to accomplish our goals in ethical and equitable ways—and we believe it is our duty as public interest technologists to do so—it is absolutely essential and time-saving in the long run.

Read more stories by Amanda Miklik.


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