• Caroline Carruthers

This Year, Christmas Dinner Conversations Should be About Data Ethics

Christmas is going to be a little different this year. Whether we’re spending it with the two other households permitted or speaking to loved ones virtually, though, the spirit of togetherness and the desire to spend the day (in person or not) with loved ones is, I think, as strong as ever.

That means, thanks to the wonder of modern technology, we’ll all be able to indulge in Christmas dinner conversations with our families one way or another. If you’re trying to avoid the two P’s during your Christmas dinner conversations (that’s politics and pandemics) there’s one topic I think deserves much more airtime – data ethics.

Now I know that sounds weird. Why would you talk about data ethics with your family over Zoom whilst wearing your Christmas jumpers and unwrapping presents? Surprisingly, it’s actually a lot more important to our lives than we think and, if people understood the topic a bit more, I think there are plenty of applications in real life as well as in the more traditional IT setting.

So, what is data ethics?

There are plenty of very long-winded explanations and definitions for ‘data ethics’ (which possibly explains why the subject is seen as universally dry to the wider public…). Probably the most concise definition I can find is the one written by the Open Data Institute, which defines data ethics as “the branch of ethics which evaluates data practices with the potential to invert adverse impacts of data on people and society.” This is good to a point; it’s short, clear and mentions the importance of people and wider society. However, it still doesn’t get to the heart of why data ethics can play such a crucial role in our own lives.

My problem with the ODI’s definition of data ethics (and just about every other definition out there), is that it focuses on the negative. It talks about the adverse impacts of data and suggests that by using ethics we can mitigate the harm bad data, or an over-reliance on it, can do to society.

Sure, that’s one part of it, but what about the positives of data? Ethics shouldn’t be about stopping us from doing something or limiting our progress in the field of data and information; it should be encouraging us to use data to its full potential which, as I’ve already discussed lots this year, is quite a bit!

Let’s get philosophical

Plato believed we could solve ethical problems in the same way we solve mathematical equations. Aristotle, on the other hand, said that ethics was all about making the best decision we could using all available information and understanding. Meanwhile, Kant says that we as a species have an intrinsic sense of what is right and wrong, and that this is what should guide our moral compass. So, who is right, and what does any of this have to do with data?

Well, data ethics actually helps us to understand all three of these seemingly different philosophical standpoints. The more access we have to data and information, the better informed we can be about making a decision, and the more knowledge we have, the easier it is to piece together solutions to difficult problems. Data has a tremendous amount of power to it, but the power isn’t in the data itself – numbers and algorithms don’t have morals. Rather, it is up to us to use data to make decisions, which in turn requires us to engage with and validate statistics to ensure the information we base decisions on is sound.

To put that another way, we cannot just assume that a programme or algorithm is always 100% correct, and nor should we ever see a data led decision as final. We need to constantly evaluate data, push boundaries and think critically and creatively about data-led problem solving. In order to do that, we need to constantly learn and pursue further education in the areas we want to make decisions in.

Data literacy is a life skill

That constant pursuit of knowledge is where data literacy comes in, and where I think the most important application of data ethics in our everyday lives really shines; you see, data literacy is much more than just a business skill, it’s a life skill. If you’re searching Google, scrolling through your social media feed or even just looking up the next bus, you’re interacting with data. Data literacy, at its most basic, is the ability to read, work with, analyse and argue with data. It’s that last part, arguing, that is most important to good data ethics. We cannot just assume data is true.

We need to interrogate data and information, using our own knowledge to question and better understand the figures a data source is giving us. An app may be telling us a train is due at our station, but if we can’t see one in front of us, the data is wrong and can’t be trusted. Similarly, we need to apply this critical thinking to our information consumption; with so much misinformation online about the COVID-19 vaccine, the ability to interrogate data and information is crucial to staying well informed and, ultimately, making better decisions.

This year has been tough, but the way in which it’s shone a spotlight on the importance of data actually fills me with a lot of hope for the future. That’s a future where we combine data, critical thinking and determination to continue to progress in every conceivable human field. Data ethics and data literacy isn’t a problem to solve, or some boring piece of abstract business jargon. It’s a journey we can all take, in our own personal and working lives.

Now that’s a much better Christmas dinner topic than re-telling your old cracker jokes!

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