Software systems and institutional xenophobia

I don’t usually write about politics, because there are people with more sophisticated opinions and knowledge out there, compared to me, playing at the easiest level, to quote John Scalzi, and rarely having to fear for my future (except for when it comes to health problems). But today I need to point out something that worries me a lot.

We live in a society that, for good or bad (and I think it’s mostly for good), is more and more tied to computer systems. This makes it very easy for computer experts of one kind or another (like me!) to find a job, particularly a good paying job. But at the same time it should give us responsibilities for what we do with our jobs.

I complained on Twitter how most of the credit card application forms here in the UK are effectively saying “F**k you, immigrant scum” by not allowing you to complete the application process if you have less than three years’ addresses in the UK. In the case of a form I tried today, even though the form allows you to specify an “Overseas address” as previous address, which allows you to select Ireland as a country, it still verifies the provided post code to UK standards, and refuses you to continue the process without it.

This is not the first such form. Indeed, I ended up getting an American Express credit card because they were the only financial institution that could be convinced to take me on as a customer, with just two months living in this country, and a full history of addresses for the previous five years and more. And even for them, it was a bit of an issue to find an online form that did indeed allow me to type that in.

Yet another of the credit card companies rejected my request because “[my] file is too thin” — despite being able to prove to them I’m currently employed full time with a very well paying company, and not expecting to change any time soon. This is nearly as bad as the NatWest employee that wanted my employer’s HR representative to tell them how long they expected me to live in the UK.

But it’s not just financial institutions, it’s just at any place where you provide information, and you may end up putting up limitations that, though obviously fine for your information might not be for someone else. Sign-up forms where putting a space in a name or surname field is an error. Data processing that expects all names to only have 7-bit ASCII encoding. Electoral registries where names are read either as Latin 1 or Latin 2.

All of these might be considered smaller data issues of nearsighted developers, but they also show how these can easily turn into real discrimination.

When systems that have no reason to discard your request on the basis of the previous address have a mistake that causes the postcode validation to trigger on the wrong format, you’re causing a disservice and possible harm to someone who might really just need a credit card to be able to travel safely.

When you force people to discard part of their name, you’re going to cause them disservice and harm when they will need a full history of what they did — I had that problem in Ireland, applying for a driving learner permit, not realising that the bills for Bord Gáis Energy wrote down my name wrong (using Elio as my surname).

The fact that my council appears to think that they need to use Latin-2 to encode names, suggests they may expect that their residents are all either English or Eastern European, which in turn leads to the idea of some level of segregation of them away from Italian, French or Irish, all of which depend on Latin-1 encodings instead.

The “funnies” in Ireland was a certain bank allowing you to sign up online with no problems… as long as you had a PPS (tax ID) issued before 2013 — after that year, a new format for the number was in use, and their website didn’t consider it valid. Of course, it’s effectively only immigrants who, in 2014, would be trying to open a bank account with such codes.

Could all of these situation be considered problems with incompetence? Possibly yes. Lots of people are incompetents, in our field. But it also means that there was no coverage for these not-so-corner cases in the validation. So it’s not just an incompetent programmer, it’s an incompetent programmer paired with an incompetent QA engineer. And an incompetent product manager. And an incompetent UX designer… that’s a lot of incompetence put together for a product.

Or the alternative is that there is a level of institutional xenophobia when it comes to software development. In the UK just as in Ireland, Italy and in the United States. The idea that the only information that are being tested are those that are explicitly known to the person doing the development is so minimalist as to be useless. You may as well not validate anything.

Not having anyone from the stakeholders to the developers and testers consider “Should a person from a different culture with different naming, addressing, or {whatever else} norms be able to use this?” (or worse, consider it and answering themselves “no”), is something I consider xenophobia1.

I keep hearing calls to pledge ethics in the field of machine learning (“AI”) and data collection. But I have a feeling that those fields have much less impact on the “median” part of the population. Which is not to say you shouldn’t have ethical consideration in them at all. But rather than we should start with teaching ethics in everyday’s data processing too.

And if you’re looking for some harsh laugh after this mood-killing post, I recommend this article from The Register.


  1. Yes I’m explicitly not using the word “racism” here, because then people will focus on that, rather than the problem. A form does not look at the colour of your skin, but does look at whether you comply with its creators idea of what’s “right”. 

3 thoughts on “Software systems and institutional xenophobia

  1. Interesting read and I agree. Regardless of if it’s intentional or not, it’s a problem and can definitely be used as an intentional instrument of segregation. It’s basically the digital equivalent of some people having a much higher chance of being stopped while driving, travelling by plane or just going to a store. And that is traditionally used to make some people feel unwelcome or make it complicated enough so that they give up. One thing I find more even more scary with the examples you mentioned is that there is no human on the other side that you can appeal to, which I imagine makes the user feel more helpless.

    I have given up applying for things many times just because the form required me to enter a valid state, even if I select a country outside of US. In these cases it’s not always obvious where to turn for help

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I don’t think I’ve had the misfortune of encountering a system that didn’t take spaces, but I’ve also come across delightful auto-capitalization and sorting of lowercase letters (common in, e.g., “de,” “van,” and “van der”) at the very end of the alphabet underneath uppercase Z.

    Like

  3. Last autumn, I spent roughly two months having a several-emails-per-week discussion with my council, trying to get them to actually call me something that’s close to my actual name. That was… uncomfortably exciting. And the root cause is that the typical anglophone “First Middles Last” naming pattern is not universal (not, as it happens, even within the anglophone world, as I happen to know at least a few that follow the same “Inherited Used Last” pattern as my full name has).

    Like

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