Lessons from a “Racist” Webcam

A couple of days before Christmas a big news story about HP’s “racist” webcam hit the airwaves. It was, in true network news fashion, over sensationalized, but despite that, serves as an important reminder for those of us in IT – diversity matters, not just for diversity’s sake, but for the sake of the products we create. I’ve read in several places that early voice recognition software didn’t recognize female voices, and more recently, that some software might not fit women’s learning styles. Why? Because they weren’t designed with women in mind, or (in the case of voice recognition) tested on them.

We all do it. We grab our student assistants—hey, you’re a student, can you look at this?—to “test” our websites. We seek out IT-friendly faculty to evaluate our newest instructional aide. Or we round up our sys admins and database developers to garner feedback on our latest application in development. The problem, of course, is that these groups are not necessarily representative of our target audiences for these products and services. Our student assistants and faculty friends are likely more tech savvy than their peers, and predisposed (we hope) to viewing IT favorably. And our staff, well…

IT is not a diverse profession. It turns out that this matters not only for those of us who are in it (and desperately seeking peers “like us”), but for *all* consumers of technology. HP’s webcam isn’t racist, but it may be a product of its environment. On its blog, HP noted that they use “standard algorithms that measure the difference in intensity of contrast between the eyes and the upper cheek and nose.” Perhaps this “standard algorithm” would be different, if more people of color were on the design team?

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