How to stop data ethics becoming a roadblock to innovation

The last thing the public sector needs is a conversation around the ethical use of data slowing down or blocking innovation. Made Tech’s Haroon Ahmed explains the ways ethical data can be an enabler to design services and successfully underpin technology practices.

Posted 17 January 2023 by Christine Horton

Data ethics is a topic we’re hearing about more and more as it gradually becomes an agenda point. But as of yet there’s still no clear, standardised direction or approach. And the potential loss of revenue and damage to reputation for government departments are huge if it goes wrong.

The ethical use of data is essential to make sure privacy, security and transparency standards are met and the public sector should not sleepwalk into using data with the assumption that its practices will be ethical by default – we need to put the hard work in first.

Let’s start with the whole data journey

To begin, let’s look at the whole data journey and how ethics come into play. There’s a few questions you need to ask right from the word ‘go’.

Concentrate on the basics around why you’re building a particular service and what positive or negative impact is happening from an ethical point of view. Find out what your data sources are, and who has the rights on them.

While this is not an exhaustive list of ideas, they are an important few to ask at the start of a project to make sure we’re not setting ourselves up to block innovation later down the line.

Building trust with data

National Data Guardian Nicola Byrne has shared insight on why the federated data platform for NHS England should involve detailed guidance and frameworks on information governance and security measures. Byrne explained how she supports the plan in its aim of providing high-quality data for users, but that it needs a “balanced judgement” in how it handles data to preserve public trust.

Creating and nurturing trust in public sector data collection is the next step in our data ethics journey. When you openly communicate your purpose, are open about how you’re doing things and how data has been used you instil the most valuable tool in data projects; trust.

There needs to be clarity around why data is being collected and processed in the first place. Transparency is even more important for public sector organisations developing citizen-facing services. And ideally members of the public should be consulted on whatever is being built.

Learn as we go

We know that ethical frameworks should be created at the start of a project, but crucially, these should act as “living documents” which are updated and shared continuously, as the project progresses.

Everyone in the team should have a shared view on what these data ethics are and how you should be using these frameworks. Taking these steps will help to create a culture where the topic of data ethics is not seen as a barrier or treated as an afterthought.

Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate

Organisations can need support in developing strategies to build new data platforms. Part of this is around collecting data from different sources and putting it in one place so it can be correctly analysed and used effectively. It’s also common that they may need help with the next stage; data engineering. This is where we create machine learning and dashboards. Many public sector teams can struggle with this and it’s often not thought about until something goes wrong.

By making sure we have a strong ethical framework in place, each part of this data collection, handling and analysing can be done in a way that helps us make better, more informed and fairer decisions at a faster pace. But we need to work together to constantly question the ethics behind it, where has the data come from, is it reliable and is it representative?

Haroon Ahmed is a commercial partner for data at  Made Tech.