Mapping data in the UK government: ethics

Thu Sep 2, 2021
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In September 2020, the UK government published the draft framework National Data Strategy (NDS) for public consultation, updating it in May 2021 in response to the views and evidence received.

Our new policy project explores Mission 3 of the NDS: ‘transforming government’s use of data to drive efficiency and improve public services’. We believe that once this mission is achieved, it will support Mission 1 – ‘unlocking the value of data across the economy’. In turn, this supports the overall ambition of the NDS: ‘to help organisations of every kind succeed – across the public, private and third sectors’. Through transforming its own use of data, the UK government can set an example for others and show how its own data practices can enable data flows and data use across sectors. 

As part of our project, we’re mapping the different teams responsible for data across the UK government and public sector landscape, and the data-related initiatives they’re undertaking. We’ll be examining them against the six components of a trusted and trustworthy data ecosystem that we outline in our manifesto: infrastructure, capability, innovation, equity, ethics, and engagement.

Our previous blogposts for this project have looked at infrastructure, capability, innovation and equity

Read more about the project and see our mapping so far.

Doing data ethically

This week’s blogpost focuses on data ethics. As we say in the ODI manifesto:

People and organisations must use data ethically. The choices made about what data is collected and how it is used should not be unjust, discriminatory or deceptive.

Ethics is about using data well and avoiding harmful impacts. This means maximising the benefits of data use by people, organisations, and governments, as well as thinking through the consequences of how data use might harm people, communities and infrastructure (for example, public goods such as the environment). 

Demonstrating that ethical processes are embedded in how data is collected, analysed and used can help build confidence: as the NDS outlines, any ‘transformation’ in government’s use of data ‘will only be possible and sustainable if it is developed within a robust ethical framework of transparency, safeguards and assurance which builds and maintains public trust in the government’s use of data’. 

Some current high-profile topics under the banner of ‘ethics’ include the accountability and transparency of algorithms and artificial intelligence (AI) systems, online harms and online safety, and misinformation. Considering the environmental impacts of the data economy may increasingly become an ethical concern.

‘Ethics and public trust’ is one of the five key areas of NDS Mission 3 for transforming government’s use of data. But government getting its house in ethical order can also benefit the use of data in the wider economy, through leading by example (including perhaps being seen to go beyond checklist exercises), providing resources and tools that can be used more widely outside government, giving people and organisations confidence in the services it provides and strengthening their participation in the economy and society, providing all the actors and agents in the economy with confidence about data flows through data assurance, and – in projecting ethical values globally – supporting an environment where businesses using data ethically can thrive. 

Data ethics in government

In recent years, government organisations have introduced a range of initiatives, organisations and advisory bodies to support more ethical working with data. One of the earliest was the Data Ethics Framework, ‘a set of principles to guide the design of appropriate data use in the public sector’, now overseen by the Central Digital and Data Office. As well as being used to embed ethical practice across the public sector, its principles can be useful to other sectors. The outputs of the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation (CDEI) – established in 2018 to produce research and provide advice to government on how to innovate in ethical ways – are also public.

Within government, parts of the UK Statistics Authority (eg the National Statistician’s Data Ethics Advisory Committee and the Centre for Applied Data Ethics) provide ethical advice to the National Statistician and the wider research community (their strategy, ‘Statistics for the Public Good’, says ethics will be ever more important). The NHSX AI Lab has an AI ethics initiative; and the Geospatial Commission has launched a project on the ethics of location data. The latter involves public engagement: we’ve previously argued reflective and deliberative approaches are better than prescriptive frameworks, and CDEI has established a Public Attitudes to Data and AI (PADAI) network across Whitehall to bring together various public engagement initiatives. All of these might be expected to help the government lead by example in ethical data use, with some providing resources as well as inspiration to others in the wider economy and society.

Our data assurance work notes that there may be a need for someone to assure that data is being used and shared ethically. The NDS includes an example, not related to ethics, of where government can play such a role: the Food Standards Agency’s Food Hygiene Ratings Scheme can help consumers and platforms make more informed decisions. The government’s ongoing work around digital identity assurance – where providers of digital identity services are assured against a trust framework – is one example of where government work on ethics may help unlock wider economic value.

In recent years, the UK has attempted to establish and ‘retain a global leadership position’ in the ethical and accountable use of data and AI, through establishing CDEI, work on standards and working on national strategies around data and AI. Both the NDS and the Integrated Review discuss shaping an open international order (including ethical values), which aims to support UK businesses.

Examples from elsewhere

Many civil society organisations and academic institutions have a strong focus on data ethics. As well as the ODI (for example, our Data Ethics Canvas), examples include the Ada Lovelace Institute and the Oxford Institute for Ethics in AI in the UK, and Data & Society in the US. There are also private sector initiatives ranging from techUK’s Digital Ethics Working Group to Microsoft’s Responsible AI principles.

As with other subjects in the ODI manifesto, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) keep a watching brief on international initiatives and has produced its own Good Practice Principles for Data in the Public Sector.

Get involved

We’d love you to help us map relevant UK public sector teams and initiatives, as well as relevant examples from other sectors or other countries. Our mapping document is open to comments and contributions so that we can crowdsource to help us fill out the gaps, and to get your perspectives on government data initiatives. It is open for comment until Friday 17 September 2021 (extended from 10 September). You can also email [email protected] or submit via our anonymous Google Form.

Alongside our broader engagement with the UK National Data Strategy, some of the ODI’s wider portfolio of work in this area includes: