Keep calm and be ethical in data science

Of Ethics and Big Data – A testimonial!

I am delighted that the DSTI courses include a decent number of hours on Ethics and Law. In fact if that wasn’t the case I would have said no when asked to join the Scientific Board.

Why is this so important? Well in the world I come from – NHS information and IT – there seems to be two very different types of data specialists. First the analysts who are happy to work on any data linkage and analysis, the more innovative the better. And second the information security/ data protection people, who have a default ‘you can’t do that’ answer to most requests for new analyses.

OK OK so this is a gross exaggeration, and insulting to many good people.

But the point I’m trying to make is that we need a hybrid of the good bits of both types. The ‘can do’ attitude of the analyst which extends to finding a way to do that work in a way that is ethically and legally sound. And all around that key area of where open data meets personal data.

But surely existing laws are clear and up to the challenge?

Alas not. As Jonathan King and Neil Richards point out, “the law is a powerful element of Big Data Ethics, but it is far from able to handle the many use cases and nuanced scenarios that arise. Organizational principles, institutional statements of ethics, self-policing, and other forms of ethical guidance are also needed.”

But while ethical guidance for big data is starting to appear (such as the ethical framework that’s been developed for big data and analytics by the IBM-sponsored Technical Consultancy Group), what is interesting about King and Richards’ second sentence is that all of the other ‘solutions’ are internal to the organisation. For a Data Scientist to deserve his or her title in an organisation means being in a respected position to both understand and influence things like principles, statements of ethics and self-policing procedures.

A hybrid not just of analyst and security officer, but of management strategy as well.

So I look forward to hearing from DSTI students on how ‘rounded’ they feel after the course. But I have no doubts about how organisations will value such people.

About the Author

Alan Hyslop