Tag Archives: Our Staff

Can algorithms be unethical?

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At Raspberry Pi, we’re interested in all things to do with technology, from building new tools and helping people teach computing, to researching how young people learn to create with technology and thinking about the role tech plays in our lives and society. One of the aspects of technology I myself have been thinking about recently is algorithms.

An illustration of a desktop computer above which 5 icons are shown for privacy, culture, law, environment, and ethics

Technology impacts our lives at the level of privacy, culture, law, environment, and ethics.

All kinds of algorithms — set series of repeatable steps that computers follow to perform a task — are running in the background of our lives. Some we recognise and interact with every day, such as online search engines or navigation systems; others operate unseen and are rarely directly experienced. We let algorithms make decisions that impact our lives in both large and small ways. As such, I think we need to consider the ethics behind them.

We need to talk about ethics

Ethics are rules of conduct that are recognised as acceptable or good by society. It’s easier to discuss the ethics of a specific algorithm than to talk about ethics of algorithms as a whole. Nevertheless, it is important that we have these conversations, especially because people often see computers as ‘magic boxes’: you push a button and something magically comes out of the box, without any possibility of human influence over what that output is. This view puts power solely in the hands of the creators of the computing technology you’re using, and it isn’t guaranteed that these people have your best interests at heart or are motivated to behave ethically when designing the technology.

An icon with the word 'stakeholders' below it

Who creates the algorithms you use, and what are their motivations?

You should be critical of the output algorithms deliver to you, and if you have questions about possible flaws in an algorithm, you should not discount these as mere worries. Such questions could include:

  • Algorithms that make decisions have to use data to inform their choices. Are the data sets they use to make these decisions ethical and reliable?
  • Running an algorithm time and time again means applying the same approach time and time again. When dealing with societal problems, is there a single approach that will work successfully every time?

Below, I give two concrete examples to show where ethics come into the creation and use of algorithms. If you know other examples (or counter-examples, feel free to disagree with me), please share them in the comments.

Algorithms can be biased

Part of the ‘magic box’ mental model is the idea that computers are cold instructions followers that cannot think for themselves — so how can they be biased?

Humans aren’t born biased: we learn biases alongside everything else, as we watch the way our family and other people close to us interact with the world. Algorithms acquire biases in the same way: the developers who create them might inadvertently add their own biases.

An illustration of four people using smartphones

Humans can be biased, and therefore the algorithms they create can be biased too.

An example of this is a gang violence data analysis tool that the Met Police in London launched in 2012. Called the gang matrix, the tool held the personal information of over 300 individuals. 72% of the individuals on the matrix were non-white, and some had never committed a violent crime. In response to this, Amnesty International filed a complaint stating that the makeup of the gang matrix was influenced by police officers disproportionately labelling crimes committed by non-white individuals as gang-related.

Who curates the content we consume?

We live in a content-rich society: there is much, much more online content than one person could possibly take in. Almost every piece of content we consume is selected by algorithms; the music you listen to, the videos you watch, the articles you read, and even the products you buy.

An illustration of a phone screen showing an invented tweet asking where people get their news from

Some of you may have experienced a week in January of 2012 in which you saw a lot of either cute kittens or sad images on Facebook; if so, you may have been involved in a global social experiment that Facebook engineers performed on 600,000 of its users without their consent. Some of these users were shown overwhelmingly positive content, and others overwhelmingly negative content. The Facebook engineers monitored the users’ actions to gage how they responded. Was this experiment ethical?

In order to select content that is attractive to you, content algorithms observe the choices you make and the content you consume. The most effective algorithms give you more of the same content, with slight variation. How does this impact our beliefs and views? How do we broaden our horizons?

Why trust algorithms at all then?

People generally don’t like making decisions; almost everyone knows the discomfort of indecision. In addition, emotions have a huge effect on the decisions humans make moment to moment. Algorithms on the other hand aren’t impacted by emotions, and they can’t be indecisive.

While algorithms are not immune to bias, in general they are way less susceptible to it than humans. And if a bias is identified in an algorithm, an engineer can remove the bias by editing the algorithm or changing the dataset the algorithm uses. The same cannot be said for human biases, which are often deeply ingrained and widespread in society.

An icon showing a phone screen with an internet browser symbol

As is true for all technology, algorithms can create new problems as well as solve existing problems.

That’s why there are more and less appropriate areas for algorithms to operate in. For example, using algorithms in policing is almost always a bad idea, as the data involved is recorded by humans and is very subjective. In objective, data-driven fields, on the other hand, algorithms have been employed very successfully, such as diagnostic algorithms in medicine.

Algorithms in your life

I would love to hear what you think: this conversation requires as many views as possible to be productive. Share your thoughts on the topic in the comments! Here are some more questions to get you thinking:

  • What algorithms do you interact with every day?
  • How large are the decisions you allow algorithms to make?
  • Are there algorithms you absolutely do not trust?
  • What do you think would happen if we let algorithms decide everything?

Feel free to respond to other people’s comments and discuss the points they raise.

The ethics of algorithms is one of the topics for which we offer you a discussion forum on our free online course Impact of Technology. The course also covers how to facilitate classroom discussions about technology — if you’re an educator teaching computing or computer science, it is a great resource for you!

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Pulling Raspberry Pi translation data from GitHub

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What happens when you give two linguists jobs at Raspberry Pi? They start thinking they can do digital making, even though they have zero coding skills! Because if you don’t feel inspired to step out of your comfort zone here — surrounded by all the creativity, making, and technology — then there is no hope you’ll be motivated to do it anywhere else.

two smiling women standing in front of a colourful wall

Maja and Nina, our translation team, and coding beginners

Maja and I support the community of Raspberry Pi translation volunteers, and we wanted to build something to celebrate them and the amazing work they do! Our educational content is already available in 26 languages, with more than 400 translations on our projects website. But our volunteer community is always translating more content, and so off we went, on an ambitious (by our standards!) mission to create a Raspberry Pi–powered translation notification system. This is a Raspberry Pi that pulls GitHub data to display a message on a Sense HAT and play a tune whenever we add fresh translated content to the Raspberry Pi projects website!

Breaking it down

There were three parts to the project: two of them were pretty easy (displaying a message on a Sense HAT and playing a tune), and one more challenging (pulling information about new translated content added to our repositories on GitHub). We worked on each part separately and then put all of the code together.

Two computers and two pastries

Mandatory for coding: baked goods and tea

Displaying a message on Sense HAT and playing a sound

We used the Raspberry Pi projects Getting started with the Sense HAT and GPIO music box to help us with this part of our build.

At first we wanted the Sense HAT to display fireworks, but we soon realised how bad we both are at designing animations, so we moved on to displaying a less creative but still satisfying smiley face, followed by a message saying “Hooray! Another translation!” and another smiley face. LED screen displaying the message 'Another translation!'

We used the sense_hat and time modules, and wrote a function that can be easily used in the main body of the program. You can look at the comments in the code above to see what each line does:

Python code snippet for displaying a message on a Sense HAT

So we could add the fun tune, we learned how to use the Pygame library to play sounds. Using Pygame it’s really simple to create a function that plays a sound: once you have the .wav file in your chosen location, you simply import and initialise the pygame module, create a Sound object, and provide it with the path to your .wav file. You can then play your sound:

Python code snippet for playing a sound

We’ve programmed our translation notification system to play the meow sound three times, using the sleep function to create a one-second break between each sound. Because why would you want one meow if you can have three?

Pulling repository information from GitHub

This was the more challenging part for Maja and me, so we asked for help from experienced programmers, including our colleague Ben Nuttall. We explained what we wanted to do: pull information from our GitHub repositories where all the projects available on the Raspberry Pi projects website are kept, and every time a new language directory is found, to execute the sparkles and meow functions to let us and EVERYONE in the office know that we have new translations! Ben did a bit of research and quickly found the PyGithub library, which enables you to manage your GitHub resources using Python scripts.

Python code snippet for pulling data from GitHub

Check out the comments to see what the code does

The script runs in an infinite loop, checking all repositories in the ‘raspberrypilearning’ organisation for new translations (directories with names in form of xx-XX, eg. fr-CA) every 60 minutes. Any new translation is then printed and preserved in memory. We had some initial issues with the usage of the PyGithub library: calling .get_commits() on an empty repository throws an exception, but the library doesn’t provide any functions to check whether a repo is empty or not. Fortunately, wrapping this logic in a try...except statement solved the problem.

And there we have it: success!

Demo of our Translation Notification System build

Subscribe to our YouTube channel: http://rpf.io/ytsub Help us reach a wider audience by translating our video content: http://rpf.io/yttranslate Buy a Raspberry Pi from one of our Approved Resellers: http://rpf.io/ytproducts Find out more about the #RaspberryPi Foundation: Raspberry Pi http://rpf.io/ytrpi Code Club UK http://rpf.io/ytccuk Code Club International http://rpf.io/ytcci CoderDojo http://rpf.io/ytcd Check out our free online training courses: http://rpf.io/ytfl Find your local Raspberry Jam event: http://rpf.io/ytjam Work through our free online projects: http://rpf.io/ytprojects Do you have a question about your Raspberry Pi?

Our ideas for further development

We’re pretty proud that the whole Raspberry Pi office now hears a meowing cat whenever new translated content is added to our projects website, but we’ve got plans for further development of our translation notification system. Our existing translated educational resources have already been viewed by over 1 million users around the world, and we want anyone interested in the translations our volunteers make possible to be able to track new translated projects as the go live!

One way to do that is to modify the code to tweet or send an email with the name of the newly added translation together with a link to the project and information on the language in which it was added. Alternatively, we could adapt the system to only execute the sparkles and meow functions when a translation in a particular language is added. Then our more than 1000 volunteers, or any learner using our translations, could set up their own Raspberry Pi and Sense HAT to receive notifications of content in the language that interests them, rather than in all languages.

We need your help

Both ideas pose a pretty big challenge for the inexperienced new coders of the Raspberry Pi translation team, so we’d really appreciate any tips you have for helping us get started or for improving our existing system! Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

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Eight years, 2000 blog posts

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Today’s a bit of a milestone for us: this is the 2000th post on this blog.

Why does a computer company have a blog? When did it start, who writes it, and where does the content come from? And don’t you have sore fingers? All of these are good questions: I’m here to answer them for you.

The first ever Raspberry Pi blog post

Marital circumstances being what they are, I had a front-row view of everything that was going on at Raspberry Pi, right from the original conversations that kicked the project off in 2009. In 2011, when development was still being done on Eben’s and my kitchen table, we met with sudden and slightly alarming fame when Rory Cellan Jones from the BBC shot a short video of a prototype Raspberry Pi and blogged about it – his post went viral. I was working as a freelance journalist and editor at the time, but realised that we weren’t going to get a better chance to kickstart a community, so I dropped my freelance work and came to work full-time for Raspberry Pi.

Setting up an instantiation of WordPress so we could talk to all Rory’s readers, each of whom decided we’d promised we’d make them a $25 computer, was one of the first orders of business. We could use the WordPress site to announce news, and to run a sort of devlog, which is what became this blog; back then, many of our blog posts were about the development of the original Raspberry Pi.

It was a lovely time to be writing about what we do, because we could be very open about the development process and how we were moving towards launch in a way that sadly, is closed to us today. (If we’d blogged about the development of Raspberry Pi 3 in the detail we’d blogged about Raspberry Pi 1, we’d not only have been handing sensitive and helpful commercial information to the large number of competitor organisations that have sprung up like mushrooms since that original launch; but you’d also all have stopped buying Pi 2 in the run-up, starving us of the revenue we need to do the development work.)

Once Raspberry Pis started making their way into people’s hands in early 2012, I realised there was something else that it was important to share: news about what new users were doing with their Pis. And I will never, ever stop being shocked at the applications of Raspberry Pi that you come up with. Favourites from over the years? The paludarium’s still right up there (no, I didn’t know what a paludarium was either when I found out about it); the cucumber sorter’s brilliant; and the home-brew artificial pancreas blows my mind. I’ve a particular soft spot for musical projects (which I wish you guys would comment on a bit more so I had an excuse to write about more of them).

As we’ve grown, my job has grown too, so I don’t write all the posts here like I used to. I oversee press, communications, marketing and PR for Raspberry Pi Trading now, working with a team of writers, editors, designers, illustrators, photographers, videographers and managers – it’s very different from the days when the office was that kitchen table. Alex Bate, our magisterial Head of Social Media, now writes a lot of what you see on this blog, but it’s always a good day for me when I have time to pitch in and write a post.

I’d forgotten some of the early stuff before looking at 2011’s blog posts to jog my memory as I wrote today’s. What were we thinking when we decided to ship without GPIO pins soldered on? (Happily for the project and for the 25,000,000 Pi owners all over the world in 2019, we changed our minds before we finally launched.) Just how many days in aggregate did I spend stuffing envelopes with stickers at £1 a throw to raise some early funds to get the first PCBs made? (I still have nightmares about the paper cuts.) And every time I think I’m having a bad day, I need to remember that this thing happened, and yet everything was OK again in the end. (The backs of my hands have gone all prickly just thinking about it.) Now I think about it, the Xenon Death Flash happened too. We also survived that.

At the bottom of it all, this blog has always been about community. It’s about sharing what we do, what you do, and making links between people all over the world who have this little machine in common. The work you do telling people about Raspberry Pi, putting it into your own projects, and supporting us by buying the product doesn’t just help us make hardware: every penny we make funds the Raspberry Pi Foundation’s charitable work, helps kids on every continent to learn the skills they need to make their own futures better, and, we think, makes the world a better place. So thank you. As long as you keep reading, we’ll keep writing.

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Guess the weight, win a thing!

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Today marks the four-year anniversary of Nicola Early joining the Raspberry Pi team. Nicola works as Administrator at Pi Towers and is responsible for so many things that I dare not try to list them all. But among all her tasks, the most important one is the care and maintenance of the office rubber band ball.

Pi Towers Raspberry Pi Rubber Band Ball

The rubber band ball chronicles

Every working day for the last four years, whenever the postman delivers the packs of letters, Nicola has had at least one new rubber band to collect. And so over time, the ball has grown and grown and grown.

Nicola is very protective of the ball, so if you come to her desk in search for a rubber band, you’ll have to withstand her glare as she reluctantly removes one from her expanding collection.

Pi Towers Raspberry Pi Rubber Band Ball

If we are to consider that, in the UK, there are about 261 working days in a year, and Nicola has been working at Pi Towers for four years, it’s fair to estimate the ball consists of at least 1044 bands.

So our question for you is this:

How much does the ball weigh?

Submit your guess in the comments below*, or in the tweet, Facebook post, or Instagram post for this blog, and the closest guess will win a Raspberry Pi T-shirt and, if we can manage it without her noticing, a band from the very ball in question.

Pi Towers Raspberry Pi Rubber Band Ball

To take part, you need to submit your guess in grams by midnight next Monday 17 September. Multiple guesses on the same platform from the same account will be ignored — so behave.

*Members of the Raspberry Pi team may not take part, as there are scales on Nicola’s desk, and I don’t trust any of you.

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Hang out with Raspberry Pi this month in California, New York, and Boston

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This month sees two wonderful events where you can meet the Raspberry Pi team, both taking place on the weekend of September 22 and 23 in the USA.

And for more impromptu fun, you can also hang out with our Social Media Editor and fellow Pi enthusiasts on the East Coast on September 24–28.

Coolest Projects North America

In the Discovery Cube Orange County in Santa Ana, California, team members of the Raspberry Pi Foundation North America, CoderDojo, and Code Club will be celebrating the next generation of young makers at Coolest Projects North America.

Coolest Projects is a world-leading showcase that empowers and inspires the next generation of digital creators, innovators, changemakers, and entrepreneurs. This year, for the first time, we are bringing Coolest Projects to North America for a spectacular event!

While project submissions for the event are now closed, you can still get the last FREE tickets to attend this showcase on Sunday, September 23.

To get your free tickets, click here. And for more information on the event, visit the Coolest Projects North America homepage.

World Maker Faire New York

For those on the east side of the continent at World Maker Faire New York, we’ll have representation in the form of Alex, our Social Media Editor.

The East Coast’s largest celebration of invention, creativity, and curiosity showcases the very best of the global Maker Movement. Get immersed in hundreds of projects and multiple stages focused on making for social good, health, technology, electronics, 3D printing & fabrication, food, robotics, art and more!

Alex will be adorned in Raspberry Pi stickers while exploring the cornucopia of incredible projects on show. She’ll be joined by Raspberry Pi’s videographer Brian, and they’ll gather footage of Raspberry Pis being used across the event for videos like this one from last year’s World Maker Faire:

Raspberry Pi Coffee Robot || Mugsy || Maker Faire NY ’17

Labelled ‘the world’s first hackable, customisable, dead simple, robotic coffee maker’, and powered by a Raspberry Pi, Mugsy allows you to take control of every aspect of the coffee-making process: from grind size and water temperature, to brew and bloom time.

So if you’re planning to attend World Maker Faire, either as a registered exhibitor or an attendee showing off your most recent project, we want to know! Share your project in the comments so we can find you at the event.

A week of New York and Boston meetups

Lastly, since she’ll be in New York, Alex will be out and about after MFNY, meeting up with members of the Raspberry Pi community. If you’d be game for a Raspberry Pi-cnic in Central Park, Coffee and Pi in a cafe, or any other semi-impromptu meetup in the city, let us know the best days for you between Monday, September 24 to Thursday, September 27! Alex will organise some fun gatherings in the Big Apple.

You can also join her in Boston, Massachusetts, on Friday, September 28, where Alex will again be looking to meet up with makers and Pi enthusiasts — let us know if you’re game!

This is weird

Does anyone else think it’s weird that I’ve been referring to myself in the third person throughout this post?

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The last 10%: revamping the Raspberry Pi desktop

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Simon Long is a Senior Principal Software Engineer here at Raspberry Pi. He’s responsible for the Raspberry Pi Desktop on both Raspbian and Debian, and his article from The MagPi issue 73 explores the experience of revamping our desktop. Get your copy of The MagPi in stores now, or download it as a free PDF here.

The PIXEL desktop on Raspberry Pi

It was almost exactly four years ago when I was offered the chance to work at Raspberry Pi. I knew all the team very well, but I’d had hardly any involvement with the Pi itself, and wasn’t all that sure what they would want me to do; at that time, I was working as the manager of a software team, with no experience of hardware design. Fortunately, this was when software had started to move up the list of priorities at Raspberry Pi.

The 2014 updated desktop

Eben and I sat down on my first day and played with the vanilla LXDE desktop environment in Raspbian for 15 minutes or so, and he then asked me the fateful question: “So — do you think you can make it better?” With rather more confidence than I felt, I replied: “Of course!” I then spent the next week wondering just how long it was going to take before I was found out to be an impostor and shown the door.

Simon Long Raspberry Pi

Simon Long, Senior Principal Software Impostor

UI experience

To be fair, user interface design was something of which I had a lot of experience — I spent the first ten years of my career designing and implementing the user interfaces for a wide range of products, from mobile phones to medical equipment, so I knew what a good user interface was like. I could even see what changes needed to be made to transform the LXDE environment into one. But I didn’t have a clue how to do it — I’d barely used Linux, never mind programmed for it… As I said above, that was four years ago, and I’ve been hacking the Pi desktop from that day on.

Raspberry Pi desktop circa 2015

Not all the changes I’ve made have been popular with everyone, but I think most people who use the desktop feel it has improved over that time. My one overriding aim has been to try to make the Pi desktop into a product that I actually want to use myself; one that takes the good user interface design principles that we are used to in environments like macOS and Windows — ideas like consistency, attractive fonts and icons, intuitive operation, everything behaving the way you expect without having to read the instructions — and sculpting the interface around them.

Final polish

In my experience, the main difference between the Linux desktop environment and those of its commercial competitors is the last 10%: the polishing you do once everything works. It’s not easy making something that works, and a lot of people, once they have created something and got it working, leave it and move onto creating something else. I’m really not great at creating things from scratch — and have nothing but admiration for those who are — but what I do enjoy doing is adding that last 10%: going from something that works to something that works well and is a pleasure to use. Being at Raspberry Pi means I get to do that every day when I come to work. Every time I see a photo of a Pi running at a Jam, or in a classroom, anywhere in the world, and it’s using my desktop — the thrill from that never goes away.

If you’d like to read more about the evolution of the Raspberry Pi desktop, and Simon’s adventures at Raspberry Pi, you can access the entire back catalogue of his blog posts here.

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