Navigating good data ethics

In an era where data, AI and machine learning dominate headlines, local government teams face a critical responsibility: how do we tap into the power of data and analytics whilst ensuring ethics and integrity remain central?

Key to achieving this balance in a rapidly evolving field is in ensuring our foundations remain strong; our data ethics understanding continues to be relevant; our processes robust; our learning and practices evolve and reflect. This approach is at the centre of our data strategy and core to the data culture we are creating within ECC.

In support of our approach, and as a next step to reflect on our recently renewed data project lifecycle I have just completed the Open Data Institute’s (ODI) Data Ethics training for Professionals and Facilitators. The course is for anyone who works with data and aims to support the development of critical thinking skills in relation to ethical data practices across a project lifecycle. Passing the course means I am now a certified Data Ethics Professional and can use this knowledge to further embed data ethics capabilities and processes across ECC and significantly dedicate some resource to developing a long-term enterprise-wide approach to data ethics.

I wanted to share three key takeaways from the course:

1)     Going Beyond Good Data Practices

We must push ourselves to go beyond simply just implementing good data practices within data teams, to understanding how our entire organisation is working with data and what the ‘real world’ impact of that is and should be.

It is essential we continuously ask ourselves good questions, "What are the potential negative consequences of not doing this well?" or "How might individuals or communities be impacted if we don't prioritise good data practices?"

This deeper level of thinking can lead us to implement data strategies that more effectively create the data culture we want throughout our organisations, embedded within our organisation infrastructure rather than siloed within a data team.

2)   Importance of Diverse Perspectives

Defining what is “good” or “bad” has been the subject of philosophical debate throughout history, and when it comes to defining what good or bad impacts or consequences are in relation to data projects, the same subjectivity exists.

It is therefore vital that we consistently include diverse groups of people in our data ethics discussions. By including diverse voices, we can gain a broader understanding of what constitutes ethical data practices. This inclusivity will allow us to make more informed decisions that consider a range of perspectives.

3)   Invest in integrating data ethics

Ethics should not be treated as a one-time checklist completed at the beginning of a project. Instead, ethical considerations must be integrated into every stage of our project lifecycle, and involve every stakeholder. From scoping to data collection, analysis, and sharing, a continuous evaluation of ethical implications is essential.

A Brief History of Ethical Theories via @existentialcoms -
What are we doing about it?

Our aim as a team has always been to embed best practice around data ethics throughout the organisation, starting with our team's role as ethics advocates. We believe that by nurturing data literacy and promoting a culture of ethical data practices, we can empower our team members to actively support and champion data ethics across the entire organisation.

I recently ran an in-person team session dedicated to data ethics. The session received overwhelmingly positive feedback and provided the team valuable time to engage in open and inclusive discussions, and we’ll continue to harness the collective expertise and diverse perspectives within our team to further advance our practice and understanding around data ethics.

While we have made significant progress, we recognise the need for continuous improvement. We are actively exploring ways to further enable our team to support data ethics within ECC, and this starts with investing our team resource in building organisational data ethics literacy.  We have been rewarded for our earlier efforts to increase our colleagues’ general data literacy, this has cultivated curiosity, what better opportunity to nurture this than by providing resources, training, and ongoing support to ensure that our colleagues have the necessary tools and knowledge to navigate complex ethical challenges in their daily work with data.





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