Remembering Virginia Mary Edgerton

The IEEE member was involved in the organization’s first ethics case

27 March 2017

On 28 February, IEEE Member Virginia Mary Edgerton passed away in a nursing home in Sweden. She was 84. In 1978 Edgerton was the first person to request and receive ethical support from the (then) new IEEE Member Conduct Committee (now the IEEE Ethics and Member Conduct Committee). She was fired after raising concerns about a police dispatch system she was helping to develop. Edgerton was concerned that a computer program for a police emergency dispatch system would actually slow down police response time, putting people in danger. The committee issued its report in June 1978 supporting her actions.

She was also the second recipient of the 1979 IEEE Committee on Social Implications of Technology’s (CSIT) Carl Barus Award for Outstanding Service in the Public Interest, “for in recognition of her efforts to protect the public safety, despite losing her position, in filing a memorandum on possible degradation of police emergency dispatch response time by a computer program for which she was responsible.”

I never met her personally, but I did play a role in getting IEEE’s support for that ethics conflict. In 1977, I was a member of the IEEE-USA Activities Board Ethics Task Force, which developed member ethics support and discipline procedures. That year I received a telephone call from Virginia asking for IEEE’s support of her actions taken regarding the system she was working on, which led to her being terminated for raising concerns to upper management, going over her direct supervisor’s head. This was about the time I, along with IEEE Life Fellow Stephen H. Unger and others on the IEEE United States Activities Board Ethics Task Force, developed the USAB procedures to provide members with ethical support. I referred her to Unger, who took it from there, as the story is told next.

The following is the summary of the task force’s report published by the IEEE Committee on the Social Implication of Technology (CSIT), which would later become the IEEE Society on the Social Implications of Technology, in a 1978 edition of its Technology and Society newsletter:

The two reports in this issue of Technology and Society are outgrowths of a case involving Ms. Virginia Edgerton, a senior information scientist with the CIRCLE project of the New York City Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, who was discharged after raising questions regarding the efficacy of a computerized police emergency dispatch system—first to her supervisor and finally to members of the CIRCLE committee. Ms. Edgerton contacted CSIT in June 1977, requesting assistance. At that time no formal mechanism existed within IEEE for evaluation of potential ethics cases.

After a subcommittee of CSIT’s Ethics and Employment Practices Working Group (chaired by Stephen Unger) completed its investigation of the case reported on here, IEEE instituted formal procedures for handling such situations. These were placed under the jurisdiction of the Member Conduct Committee (MCC). When the CSIT report was presented to the Executive Committee of the IEEE Board of Directors on May 21, 1978, that body referred the matter to the MCC for consideration under the new procedures. Both the report and complete file on which it was based were then turned over to the MCC.

That group, chaired by James Fairman, reviewed the file, obtained a notarized statement from Ms. Edgerton, the individual seeking support, then drafted its own report. Following the precedent set by the CSIT Subcommittee, this draft was sent to the managers involved for their comments, and was subsequently presented to the IEEE Executive Committee with the recommendation that both the MCC and CSIT reports be published and that certain other steps be taken in support of Ms. Edgerton.

On a more personal note, here is a letter sent to me by Robert Osband, a computer engineer and friend of Virginia’s about her death:  

I am very saddened to learn of the death of my old friend, Virginia. She was a customer in the mid-1970s when I worked at The Computer Store, in New York City. When I moved across town to The Computer Mart on Madison Avenue, she found me there, and became a regular in the books section of the shop. We became friends and would occasionally chat over a beer at a British pub near her apartment on Park Avenue.

Virginia’s odyssey with the whistle-blowing took years to get her recognition, but I was happy that she asked me to accompany her when she got her award from the IEEE, and naturally, I was very proud of her for receiving it.

One day, she came into the Computer Mart and pleaded with me to take over a class she was giving as an adjunct instructor at Baruch College called “Introduction to Teleprocessing.” She needed to find someone to take over the class before the school would let her out of her contract so she could take a job in Ohio. I agreed, and taught the class for a couple of years, but that was the last contact I had with Virginia.

Lastly, Ann-Marie Beckman, Edgerton’s caretaker at the end of her life, sent us these memories of her:

I met Virginia and her husband, Tage, in December 2010. When Virginia came to Sweden in the late 1980s, she met Tage and fell in love with him. They married on September 23, 1988. Virginia never spoke about her life before she moved here—she just lived in the present. Tage and Virginia did a lot together. They sailed, spent time in his summer house, picked berries and mushrooms, and went fishing. She spent a lot of time at the library, and when I met her six years ago, I brought her a computer.

She was very active before she became ill with Parkinson’s Disease. She did gymnastics workouts and loved to run. She even ran a 21-kilometer race in Gothenburg.

Tage died on October 27, 2014, and after that, Virginia lost the spark of life. Tage was Virginia great love.

Elden, a retired professional engineer, is an IEEE life senior member and a member of the IEEE Society on Social Implications of Technology.

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