How can we define and understand ‘data ethics’? What is triggering the recent increased interest in data ethics? How are different organisations responding to the challenge? We demystify these questions and introduce some practical tools and learning resources to help individuals and organisations make more ethical decisions.

People to talk to about Data ethics

We envision a future where people, organisations and communities use data to make better decisions, more quickly. To bring about this future, we must make data as open as possible while protecting people’s privacy, commercial confidentiality and national security. We must identify potential ethical issues associated with a data project or activity.

Through training and services, the ODI helps organisations make better and more ethical decisions about data. So that they use data to innovate, create more efficient and effective services and products, and fuel economic growth and productivity, whilst preserving their reputation and reducing any harmful impact

What are data ethics?

“Data ethics is a branch of ethics that evaluates data practices with the potential to adversely impact on people and society – in data collection, sharing and use”

The Open Data Institute, 2018.

New technologies such as artificial intelligence, automated decision-making systems and Blockchain show the potential for data to have a beneficial impact on our society. However, new regulations, like the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation), along with recent events such as the Cambridge Analytic and Facebook scandal, have created greater awareness about the potential for data to be misused. The risk is that people lose trust in the decisions, products and services that use data.

We need people, organisations and communities to use data to make better decisions and be protected from any harmful impacts. Data ethics has an important role to play by helping define good practices around how data is collected, shared and used. Data ethics are especially relevant when data activities have the potential to directly or indirectly impact people and society.

For example, an automated data model might make decisions about whether an individual is eligible for a mortgage or what insurance they can be offered. And decisions about what data to collect – and what to exclude – might affect groups in a society.

Data is moving from being scarce and difficult to process to being abundant and easy to use.

But harnessing its value for economic and social benefit – in ways that support innovation and deliver social justice – is hard. We envision a future where people, organisations and communities use data to make better decisions, more quickly.

This will help our economies and societies to thrive. Using data can enable us to innovate, create more efficient and effective services and products, and fuel economic growth and productivity. In this future, people can trust organisations to manage data ethically and for the benefits to be distributed fairly. Services that use data meet the needs of individuals, communities and societies.

The ODI’s theory of change explores a vision for creating the right conditions for all societies and economies to feel the positive impacts data can bring.

Take our quiz and test your understanding of data ethics.

How are organisations addressing data ethics?

Private sector companies and public sector bodies are responding to the need to consider data ethics in their work.

Some businesses have created their own frameworks and principles for working with data. These include Accenture’s ethical framework for building digital trust, and Microsoft’s AI Principles.

The data team at the Co-op, with support from the ODI, have been working to identify potential ethical issues associated with data they’re using.  Their efforts have prompted Co-op delivery teams to think even more carefully about the data the Co-op manages to enable it to operate, and the topics that must be considered to ensure they are acting ethically.

Their blog outlines the steps they have been taking and the tools and techniques they have used.

Public sector organisations are taking steps to address data ethics.

The UK government’s Data Ethics Framework sets out clear principles for how data should be used in the public sector. The Data Ethics Framework guides the design of appropriate data use in government and the wider public sector. This guidance is aimed at anyone working directly or indirectly with data in the public sector, including data practitioners (statisticians, analysts and data scientists), policymakers, operational staff and those helping produce data-informed insight.

Data ethics tools and resources

Identify potential ethical issues associated with a data project or activity. Encourage your teams to make more ethical decisions.

When developing a new product or service how do you ensure that you protect people from harm?  Increasingly people working with data are exploring the ethics of their practices and, in some cases, being forced to confront those ethics in the face of public criticism.

The Data Ethics Canvas is designed to help identify potential ethical issues associated with a data project or activity. It promotes understanding and debate around the foundation, intention and potential impact of any piece of work, and helps identify the steps needed to act ethically.

Data is emerging as a vital and virtual form of infrastructure that we rely on. This creates the opportunity to build better societies but also the risk that we lose trust, not just in data or facts but also in businesses and governments. One of the ways that we can address this is to improve data ethics. The choices made about what data is collected and how it is used should not be unfair, discriminatory or deceptive. This report, along with the Data Ethics Canvas, will help you learn how to do this.

Get started with data ethics

We offer consultancy, training and workshops to individuals and organisations who want to apply ethical data practices in their work.

Need impartial advice about data ethics? Request a free, introductory call with an ODI data ethics expert.

Get an introduction to the concept of data ethics, and how to help your organisation use the ODI Data Ethics Canvas to help make better and more ethical decisions about data, in this half-day workshop. You will leave ready to use the canvas, and run workshops in your own organisation.

Get the latest news about our data ethics research, events and publications.

Free guides and reports