the ODI Adrian Philpott Caley Dewhurt

In a previous ODI Learning article, ODI members who focus on data ethics shared their stories - why data ethics is important in their role and why they chose to certify their skills with the ODI. In this article, our members share their experiences of the Data Ethics Professional course - the highs, the lows and what it took for them to succeed.

While there have been more mainstream discussions about the risks of AI, not enough attention has been given to the basic unit of AI: data. Data ethics come before AI ethics
Carmen Ng, Siemens communications lead in smart cities topics and founder of AI East West

With all the talk of Artificial Intelligence disruption, good and bad, it’s important to acknowledge that historically humanity is bad at predicting the impact of new technology. From the printing press to the radio, neither the doomsayers nor the evangelists tend to see their predictions come true.

Fear and hype lead to unfortunate outcomes. Fear leads to people ignoring technology to their detriment. Jumping on the hype bandwagon can lead to ill-thought-through decisions, wasted budgets and general disillusion.

That’s why people are choosing to get to grips with the fundamentals of data ethics - to help them, their businesses, and their communities navigate a domain that is complex and where the impact of mistakes can be significant.

“The industry is moving at lightning speed.” says Marion Shaw, Chaucer Insurance’s Head of Data and Analytics, ”As a leader, you can’t guide your strategy without learning. You have to keep on top of things.”

Why do people want to get training and get certified?

“For us, the term data ethics was confusing,” says Dr Mohamed Abomhara, a CyberSecurity Researcher at NTNU (the Norwegian University of Science and Technology)

“Are we talking about privacy, or are we talking about human rights? When working on our projects, I wanted to be clear about what we meant and what that meant we should do. I am a cyber security specialist, I have a Ph.D. But that almost created confusion when we talked about security and privacy, and protection.”

This is why tools like the Data Ethics Canvas and the Consequence Scanning Toolkit have been developed - to help people wanting to address data ethics in their organisation in a sensible, structured way.

However, on their own, common sense and tools aren’t enough. “The space is only now professionalising, so I can’t purely rely on common sense or the law,” adds Jack Liu, a BUPA Australia data manager.

And sometimes harm happens inadvertently. “One of the things I get most concerned about is not maliciousness, more that people and teams stumble into bad uses of data by accident”, adds William Box, Founder of Carnego Systems, a business providing data-informed performance monitoring for buildings. “There are people out there who have been thinking this through - I want to use that. Learning is a way of accessing expertise rather than trying to figure it out yourself.”

Why the ODI course?

“What I like about the ODI is its independence. And that it’s not sitting there doing things from a purist perspective.” Kirstin Duffield, CEO of Morning Data.

Along with practical tools like the data ethics canvas, the ODI has, for a number of years, provided impartial advice about data ethics through consulting, events like the ODI Summit and training such as the ODI’s introductory course on data ethics. Having run the course for organisations ranging from local councils to high street banks, it was clear that many participants were looking for ways to develop skills further, to help them tackle the ethical issues many were coming across in the work they were doing and to make positive changes in their business.

“I wanted to figure out whether my instinct was matched by the training,” adds Deborah Williams, CEO and founder of Creative Diversity Network. “training gives validation to the work we are already trying to do”

In 2021, this led to the launch of the ODI’s first certified course - Data Ethics Professional.

“I wanted to have a certificate so I can show customers that we’re not just a bunch of tech bros”, adds Artem Rudkovskiy, Coordinator of the network of experts at Hendyplan International, specialists in economic data and statistics “We are connected to the community, and stay in touch with the topic. I wanted to show people I can do this.”

“There’s a real value to getting a formal certification. It provides credibility,” adds William from Carnego. “We take it seriously and like to help our industry as a whole, and having the badge backs that up when we’re out there talking to our industry”

Josh Mclinton, a consultant in workforce planning for the Government of Jersey, agrees, “I don’t know anybody that has this specific skill set. And I have been preaching the importance of data ethics in a basic way. But when you have the qualification, people take more notice.”

What is the data ethics professional course like?

As you might expect from a certification course that covers a complex topic like data ethics, the course is thorough.

“It’s a properly structured course that takes you back to your university. You can see a strong academic background - which is necessary for something like ethics. Because when you work with data, you learn business knowledge. Data ethics is different - it is a way of thinking, not a technical set of skills.” says Jack from BUPA.

When you sign up for Data Ethics Professional, you experience a comprehensive tutor-guided programme run virtually over the course of 12 weeks. Each module features self-guided online learning on topics such as the fundamentals of data ethics, data ethics tools, and operationalising data ethics in an organisation.

Each topic is examined in more detail with an ODI expert and fellow students in interactive online workshops. The workshops feature discussions, group work and explanations of concepts by ODI trainers.

“The workshops were very intriguing - sometimes you attend a course, and it’s just broadcast at you”, says Josh from the Jersey Government.

You will also facilitate a group discussion and develop a case study on a topic or project of your choice. For many people, the case-study element is the most rewarding but challenging element of the course - it’s where you start applying your skills to a project or challenge that’s important to you. Developing a case study that shows you are ready to apply data ethics skills and tools in the real world is what is required to achieve the Data Ethics Professional certification

“A graded assignment actually helps a lot. That means you have to take it seriously, so it makes sure you actually go and do research,” says Jack from BUPA.

Josh agrees, “The case study at the end was a really good way to get into the concepts.” he says.

It is hard work, as Carmen explains, “I think, in hindsight, - it’s the right kind of challenge to give to participants as it makes you look at a specific example and see how decisions lead to risk. Way better than a theoretical exercise or exam. But it was really hard. I spent on and off a full month looking for ways to evaluate risk in a case study because the use cases weren’t transparent“

To help create compelling case studies, you get one-to-one support from the ODI course leaders during the planning, development and writing of the case study. Something that past participants suggest is very important to take up.

“The case study I struggled with,” says Deborah. “because the office hours bit was optional - and I actually think that should be mandatory. It’s important to get feedback before you get into the project. I suffered from thinking, “I’ve got it”. But I actually realised I needed to get direction for this”.

In addition to support from course tutors, each cohort of learners works together on exercises and provides each other with feedback and support.

“My group were all really important people, so I had to step up,” says Deborah “It wasn't just the culture sector, it was lots of industries across the world.

“The course was really good. Personally, I would have liked it to be in person”, says Marion. “But being virtual meant we had people from places like the Netherlands and Germany. People came from so many different directions. We had really interesting discussions about differences in morality - your experience in life really colours things, and what I think is okay, you may think is terrible. In a way that makes life easy. You have to prepare for different perspectives”.

Putting data ethics into practice

With a certificate from the ODI in your back pocket to bolster your credentials, the work of a data ethics professional really starts when you get back into the office. This involves advocating for change, educating others and operationalising data ethics - making data ethics frameworks, thinking and tools integral to how data is gathered, managed and used in an organisation.

“We use the ODI Data ethics framework as part of our reporting”, says Artem ”For many of our clients, all that matters really is knowing we’re following a structure provided by outside experts. For others, it’s important to see the full framework.”

These tools provide a sound basis for navigating complex issues as Jack from BUPA explains, “The training helped me follow a more structured approach. A lot of the time, we do rely on common sense. But whenever there is a tricky situation in sensitive areas, like fraud detection, even where there is legislation, we have discretion. So how do you set tolerance of what is acceptable in this grey area? Using frameworks like the data ethics canvas gives us guidance.”

Confidently navigating the grey areas that regulations leave is often key to successfully using data in innovative ways “I apply the thinking”, Josh adds, “for example, using thinking about consequences beyond what laws like the GDPR require you to do”.

This self-assurance benefits Data Ethics Professionals and the businesses and sectors they serve.

William from Carnego Systems explains, “It’s given me more confidence to push more strongly on the data ethics issue. Although we may be small in terms of finances on a project, leading on data ethics means we also take the lead in important areas like data management. It’s now common in projects that we lead a data management and data ethics workshop. This allows us to think beyond simple compliance issues and think more widely about how data is being used”

In the next article in this series, we’ll explore the work of the Data Ethics Professional Community. Sign up to get it delivered straight to your inbox.

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