Let’s get ethical

Darllenwch y dudalen hon yn Gymraeg

Have you ever found yourself binge watching something for hours on end, because Netflix recommended it? Has unlocking your phone just by looking at it become the norm for you?

What if the public sector started using data in this way? What if our bin collections were based not on rotas but on when smart sensors said they were full? What if library cards were a thing of the past and borrowing books was based on facial recognition software?

Image of weighing scales

How would you feel about that? Would you welcome these changes? Or would you have concerns, such as what this would mean in terms of your privacy or whether it could lead to potential inequalities?

This is where data ethics comes in and these are the kind of questions we need to be asking. In a nutshell, data ethics helps us weigh up the different options and determine what we should and shouldn’t do with data.

This blog asks the questions, what can and should we do to support providers of public services in Wales with the help and guidance they need to decide when, where and how they should use data.

Why are data ethics so important now?

With advances in technology, there’s more opportunity to be innovative with data than ever before. That’s why it’s important that we make sure that we are treating data ethically. However, we shouldn’t think of data ethics as a barrier, it’s more about asking the right questions before we use data in new ways.

Good use of data can save lives, drive better decisions, target our services more effectively and save money.

We want the public sector to learn from others, to unlock the potential of data and use it in innovative ways. New techniques along with artificial intelligence and automation have the ability to improve the delivery of public services.  There’s more on unlocking this potential in our Digital Strategy for Wales.

However, for data to work for us in this way we need to maintain trust between data owners and those who use our services. People need to know that their data will be managed carefully and with the care and attention that it deserves. If we aren’t trusted we risk that potential remaining locked away.

For example, throughout the Covid-19 pandemic we’ve seen just how powerful data can be in delivering services and providing people with the help and support they need. As an organisation we’ve found ourselves using data in ways that we never have before. However, despite the pace we were working at, it was even more important that we made time as none of those decisions were ones to be taken lightly, and nor should they be.

What do we already know about data ethics?

The good news is that in recent years we’ve seen a growing interest in data ethics. This means that there is a lots of information out there including advice and support for those of us who need it.

There’s a useful UK Government Data Ethics Framework, which was published in 2019, which sets out three overarching principles of data ethics:

  • Transparency – data and processes are available for inspection and are in open and easy-to-understand formats
  • Accountability – there is effective oversight and governance processes in place for projects to ensure that government projects meet their objectives and the needs of the public
  • Fairness – steps have been taken to understand and mitigate any bias and unintended discriminatory impacts on individuals, and that projects promote just and equitable outcomes

Also, if you’re interested in finding out more about data ethics, you might find the following useful:

Working together on data ethics

As greater use is made of data and data-driven technologies, we want to make sure our partners have the information and the tools they need to be able to properly assess what they are planning to do. This is to ensure that data will be used safely, responsibly and ethically, and to help build public trust and confidence in how data is used.

We’re still in the early stages of thinking about data ethics, and what we can to do to support our public sector partners. However, we’d like to start by getting your thoughts on some or all of the following:  

  • Is your organisation following any data ethics guidance or using any specific toolkits? If so, what are you using?
  • Do you know where to find advice and guidance on data ethics?
  • Do you think there is sufficient advice and support available on data ethics to guide you in your decisions?
  • What, if any, support would you like to see Welsh Government provide on data ethics?
  • Do you think a community of practice or a community of interest on data ethics would be useful?
  • Are there any new or different challenges faced by people in Wales in relation to data ethics, compared with other parts of the UK or the world?

Of course please don’t feel restricted by the questions above. If you have any feedback or opinions on the topic of data ethics please drop us a line at: Data@gov.wales

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