Why ethics must be at the forefront of data-driven decision-making

Despite the ubiquitous rise of computer-based technologies, public attitudes towards them are in a state of flux, hemmed in by a growing feeling of discomfort towards the current world order.

Central to this concern has been the exponential growth in the gathering and use of personal data. The actors that have benefited most from this have tended to be non-state, including tech giants such as Google and Apple. The bodies being challenged most by the rise of big data have tended to be state actors, especially liberal democracies. They find themselves constrained by legal necessities on one side, and public opinion and mistrust on the other.

However, we are already seeing the positive impact that comes from leveraging big data for industry to making predictions from data, such as in a medical context, aided by the transformation in computing power.

Last year, Policy Connect and its All-Party Parliamentary Group on Data Analytics (APGDA) launched our first substantive research project on data, Trust, Transparency and Tech: Building Ethical Data Policies for the Public Good. It comes at a crucial time for the subject as government, academia and industry are starting to grapple with the risks and opportunities that Big Tech presents.

In the coming weeks, Britain will leave the European Union. While this certainly does not end the Brexit process, it will allow the prime minister some breathing space. At the heart of this will be the much touted reshuffle and changes to the machinery of government.

In perhaps the most viral job advert in the history of the civil service, Dominic Cummings called for data scientists to work in the great restructuring of Whitehall.

Regardless of your views of Cummings, this must be seen as a positive sign of the new government wishing to engage with the why, just as much as the how, of big and open data. However, this can only be successful if the public trust what is taking place in their name.

Engaging the public

The APGDA’s report sets out a path for meeting this extraordinary challenge.

The UK has been at the forefront of numerous innovations – ranging from the recognition of artificial intelligence and data within the government’s industrial strategy, to initiatives such as NHSX to facilitate closer interactions between the health service, patient groups, and the life sciences sector. This is vital to improving public engagement with new technologies and should provide a model for other government departments to follow.

The country is also very much ahead of the curve in understanding the role of government in this area. The industrial strategy rightly recognises the importance of big data across the whole of public life, and the establishment of bodies such as the Office for AI and the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation.

Nevertheless, policy makers must work across a range of areas to improve public engagement and trust.

The public should be engaged through a wide variety of methods – including open consultations, town-hall meetings, industry outreach, and other ways of directly engaging with members of the public and partners. Organisations such as the Open Data institute have been invaluable in developing these links, and government should work with them to build on this success, rather than reinventing the microchip.

Data ethics

Ethical considerations must precede any process that will use big and open data. Otherwise, there is a significant chance of losing the support from the public “licence to operate”. It is a matter of course that private organisations will take part in delivering public services, and that these bodies will have access to significant amounts of data. Government must understand how citizens may feel about data-sharing with commercial bodies, and how to avoid losing trust and confidence by the public in their perceptions of these services.

Finally, it is vital that citizens are receiving a consistent and impartial experience. Technology and data-driven investment could undermine broader national and devolved environmental and social policy objectives, particularly given the devolved nature of decisions on service delivery.

The whole point of devolution is to find local solutions to local problems, and develop the inherent strengths of a region – but there is only so far one can go.

It makes little sense for a GP in Stoke to have a different level of access to patient records than a colleague in Sheffield does.

Bodies such as the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation will need to work proactively across government. Its role in developing a rules-based system must be clarified as this will support the join-up between it and other bodies. However, the Centre can only do this effectively if all government bodies share a similar focus on data ethics.

As we enter a new decade, policy makers must ensure that ethics are at the forefront of data-driven decision making. They should be aware of the challenges that they present, but also celebrate the benefits that they offer. A ‘safety-first’ approach would be reductive. Instead, ethics should become second nature in this emerging area. If this happens, the UK has the potential to become a true innovator in delivering efficient, equitable and trusted public services.

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