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Why should we care about data ethics?

Sat Sep 14, 2019
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It’s about time organisations started acting legally, and thinking more about the impacts of work for their customers and society. Here’s why…

GDPR, or GDP-aaarrrggghhh? Whether you’re feeling invigorated or fatigued by all this talk of data regulation, it’s about time organisations started acting legally and thinking more broadly about the impact their work has on both their customers and society. What do we mean by this? Read below for why we think data ethics are important…

1. In some professions ethics codes are well recognised (…if not always followed)

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A number of professions and communities already have well-established ethics codes and practices. Some of these standards – such as statistics and computing – have a close relationship with data ethics practices.

But you’ll probably be most familiar with the Hippocratic Oath: one of the longest-standing and most commonly recognised ethical statements for a profession. The oath is historically taken by new doctors, requiring them to uphold specific ethical standards. Read the original and a modern version of the Hippocratic oath

2. Ethical decisions are being made by the people who design and build technology

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People are using software and data to design and build technologies that make decisions about other people. Decisions involved in driving a car, deciding who gets a job, or whether someone gets offered a mortgage. These decisions are made by algorithms. But this means we need answers to some key questions, like who will be designing the algorithms?

The algorithms are likely to be machine learning algorithms that use data to learn what to do. But what data will those algorithms learn from? What ethical and cultural values and behaviour will be represented in that data? And what impact will all of this have?

3. Businesses need to retain trust in how they use data

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With increased data use and the growth of new data-powered technologies – like artificial intelligence and driverless cars – comes an increased risk that if things go wrong businesses can lose the trust of their customers.

4.GDPR doesn’t address ethics

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New regulations like GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) have guidelines on how to process data in an open and transparent way. Failure to do so can come with heavy penalties.

GDPR doesn’t, however, establish guidelines for the less clear ethical areas of data handling. That work is still ongoing in many countries and organisations – in the meantime we need practical action.

5. Mo’ data. Mo’ ethical issues?

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One of the reasons AI works for business is that more data than ever is stored and managed.

More data has been created in the past two years than in the entire previous history of the human race.

The opportunities for applying large amounts of data in new technologies such as AI can often be accompanied by ethical risks. This can create pitfalls if we’re not carefully considering data ethics.

6. Unintended bias can creep in everywhere

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Online car insurance firms use predetermined algorithms to assess the risk of a user filing a claim against their policy. In 2018, large global firms like Admiral and Marks & Spencers faced a public backlash when it was found that insurance quotes for drivers with the traditional English name ‘John’ were far lower than quotes of the same for drivers named ‘Mohammed’. Under particular scrutiny was the insurance company Admiral where their deal on Go Compare for fully comprehensive insurance on a 2007 Ford Focus in Leicester was priced at £1,333 for ‘John Smith’ and £2,252 for ‘Mohammed Ali’.

Sixty quotes run across ten different cities on GoCompare and other comparison sites revealed the companies in question consistently charged more if the driver was called Mohammed.

Following public outcry, the UK’s Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) announced it would extend its consumer data research to examine whether names can impact the cost of car insurance cover.

Some states in the US have now banned price optimisation on grounds it was unfairly discriminatory.

7. Want to do something about this? The Data Ethics Canvas is here to help

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The Data Ethics Canvas is a tool people can use to consider potential ethical issues associated with their collection and use of data and to make better decisions as a result. It is designed to be practical and collaborative, involving people from across teams with different perspectives.

The Data Ethics Canvas was produced by the team at the Open Data Institute. A wide variety of organisations, from the Co-op, to computer hardware makers, to startups, to multilateral organisations, to government departments use the canvas as part of their daily data work.

Read how the Co-op are using the Data Ethics Canvas