A key part of the work of the UK Statistics Authority’s Centre for Applied Data Ethics involves engaging with the wider international data ethics community. In sharing learning and experience, we aim to develop collaborative solutions to data ethics challenges in the research and statistical space.

As part of the scoping phase of this work, we recently conducted a brief survey of current data ethics challenges and priorities in other National Statistical Institutes. In our latest blog, Alice Toms, Data Ethics Research Officer at the Centre, considers some of the themes raised in this survey and where we plan to go next.

Ensuring that our use of data for research and statistics remains ethically appropriate is an issue of increasing interest at the international level. Across the globe, many organisations who produce national statistics and associated research and analysis are experiencing similar challenges in this space. These diverse experiences and approaches to managing data ethics within varied national contexts presents an opportunity for us as a community to share experiences and learn from others – not only with regards to what has worked well, but also what has worked less well.

Here at the Centre we hope to harness the experiences of others and work together to consider how we can best address current challenges in applying data ethics within modern-day statistical contexts.

As a first step in achieving this, we recently undertook a brief survey, contacting a sub-set of 31 other National Statistical Institutes across 29 countries to understand their current data ethics processes, challenges, and priorities. Thirteen countries responded to our survey, with some key themes emerging in the points that they raised.

Firstly, respondents noted challenges relating to data privacy, particularly in regards to the anonymisation of data, the need to assure data quality and validity, the importance of transparency in the collection, use and dissemination of data, and the minimisation of bias. Also discussed was the need to ensure data privacy measures are sufficient, whilst managing the timeliness of research, which has been shown to be increasingly important within the context of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The second theme emerging from the survey related to the difficulty in allowing efficient, maximal and timely access to confidential or sensitive data where required. Participants highlighted a growing need for greater and more streamlined access to data for research purposes, particularly as a result of new data collection and analysis techniques.

Related to the previous themes, respondents discussed the modernisation of statistics, and the impact that this may have on traditional ethical principles.

New data sources and techniques such as machine learning, web scraping and data linkage have, and will continue to pose new ethical challenges, and we have a responsibility to ensure that these challenges are understood, and mitigated, alongside statistical innovation.

Lastly, the survey highlighted the need to engage with researchers and statisticians to support and guide them when considering ethical issues in their work. This is clearly an important topic for further exploration– the issue was raised and discussed in some depth by the Centre’s Advisory committee at their April meeting, and by participants of the Centre’s inaugural roundtable event too.

In the next phase of our work, we hope to convene initial meetings with those international organisations who have expressed an interest in collaborating, before organising a wider international roundtable event later in the year to explore how we can best address data ethics challenges associated with the modernisation of statistics and research. Watch this space!

We are always interested in hearing any feedback or comments that you may have regarding our work in general and our international plans in the data ethics space and these can be shared with us by contacting the data ethics team.