Applying data ethics in a changing worldThe UK Statistics Authority has established its new Centre for Applied Data Ethics to ensure that the research and statistical community, both within Government and beyond, is fully supported to address the ethical challenges inherent in our evolving data landscape.

Dame Moira Gibb, the chair of the National Statistician’s Data Ethics Advisory Committee, reflects on the role of the new Centre and why it is so important, at both the national and global level.

Artificial intelligence; Geo-location; Social media; An increasing array of surveys and access to administrative data. Many new opportunities to use (or misuse) the vast amount of data we produce as individuals and as a society. The ease with which this data can be accessed and the range of ways in which it can be analysed has also grown, with new technologies and methods emerging all the time.

Although this data can be harnessed to help us answer important societal questions, such as where infection rates for COVID-19 are increasing or how we can best target resources to groups struggling  most, it also brings important ethical issues to the fore. To ensure that research and statistics continue to provide trusted, reliable and rigorous sources of information, it is vital that we adequately address ethical considerations as and when they emerge. Just because we can do something, does not mean that we should – a statement that remains particularly relevant today.

Accessing, using and sharing both old and new forms of data present substantial ethical challenges that must be considered and addressed to ensure that researchers and statisticians can continue to fulfil their mission of using and producing statistics for the public good and make the world a better place.

Some of the challenges have been very evident over the last year, although they have been discussed and debated long before that. While in my time as chair of National Statistician’s Data Ethics Committee, I have seen considerable progress in the understanding of data ethics and the principles enshrined therein, the data ethics landscape remains fragmented and possibly confusing.

Practical guidance regarding how the research and statistical community can effectively apply data ethics to the work that they are doing, in the here and now, can seem cumbersome and difficult to navigate. New methods, technologies and data sources continue to emerge making it hard to keep abreast of best practice.

The UK Statistics Authority’s new Centre for Applied Data Ethics aims to provide a space for thought leadership, international engagement, as well as practical guidance and support for researchers and statisticians in the application of data ethics to the research and statistical space. It aims to work with others, both in the UK and internationally, to understand the current and emerging ethical challenges that continue to be faced in developing research and statistical projects for the public good. But most importantly, it aims to empower users to effectively address these.

We can only harness the diverse expertise, skills and knowledge needed to meet this challenge by working collaboratively and sharing best practice .

The work of the Centre will help the research and statistical community to continue to deliver ethical research and statistics projects that truly contribute to the public good, both now and into the future.

Related links:

Centre for Applied Data Ethics Strategy – Enabling ethically appropriate research and statistics for the public good