Ethical design of civic apps

Project Summary

People often use phone apps, along with sensors worn on the body (e.g. smart watches), to continuously track their health, activity and lifestyle. Recent research has shown that such data can be used to model and predict many health conditions. However, although a person may use their own data, and it may also be used by software companies and phone manufacturers, civic
institutions such as city councils and the NHS are generally unable to use it. Since the data involved is highly personal, and the impact of its (mis)use is major, we take a responsible innovation approach: our research will coherently combine technical and ethical issues.

By working closely and iteratively with a cohort of participants, the project will develop ways for an individual to collect data that models aspects of their activity, health and lifestyle, within an app on their phone. It will also securely gather institutional data about them, integrate it with the data created on the phone, and analyse it all—but without sharing ‘raw’ data, i.e. only summaries and results will be given to others, and only with permission. We will track what others then do with these results, and feed that back to the app so that the individual can see and perhaps change what data sharing they do.

Using public health as a domain of focus, the project will implement a phone app that makes manifest effective system design principles for consent, governance and decision-making in data-intensive civic processes. By assessing deployments, among a group of participants and lasting weeks or months, the project will solidly ground its approach, create documented use cases that others can build on in their own work, and identify further research challenges. At a more abstract level, the project aims to establish socio-technical design principles, i.e. overarching guidelines for the combination of sensing, analytics, governance, and deployment, so as to collectively support productive interaction within a civic community of use.

Project Team and where the student will be based

The supervisory team spans research environments covering technical, ethical and societal issues, with lead supervisor Prof. Matthew Chalmers working within the University of Glasgow's School of Computing Science, more particularly the Glasgow Interactive Systems (GIST) research section—which is one of the largest and most successful groups working in human-computer interaction (HCI). Dr Ewa Luger works predominantly within the Edinburgh Futures Institute, which is rapidly establishing a reputation for powerful combinations of social and data science, the arts, and humanities—including its new AI-X centre, which focuses specifically on ethical AI. These are the two primary research environments for the student.

We also note the project’s connections to Dr. Honghan Wu, of the Usher Institute of Population Health Sciences and Informatics, a delivery hub within the Data-Driven Innovation Programme of the Edinburgh and South East Scotland City Region Deal, and to Dr. Angus Ferguson, an expert in medical ethics, confidentiality and privacy, working within the University of Glasgow’s School of Political Sciences. Drs. Wu and Ferguson will assist the student project, especially with regard to the practicalities of sharing personal and medical data among individuals, and with both public and private institutions.


Academic qualifications

  • BSc (Hons) Computer Science, 2:1 or above


  • Experience of mobile systems development, including app development.
  • Experience of HCI evaluation techniques.


  • A broad socio-technical view of the issues involved in the design of data-intensive systems.
  • Ability to use co-design, with non-technical participants, to derive design requirements and constraints.


Enquiries about this project should be directed to Professor Matthew