On 12th May, the UK Statistics Authority’s Centre for Applied Data Ethics hosted its inaugural roundtable event, exploring how we can best address emerging ethical challenges in the use of data for research and statistics going forward. Emma Rourke, Director of Health Analysis and Pandemic Insight at the Office for National Statistics reflects on some of the key points raised in the discussion.

As a member of the Centre for Applied Data Ethics Advisory Committee, I was keen to join the virtual roundtable to share different perspectives on enabling ethical research and statistics in an evolving data environment. It was a meaningful opportunity to share experiences, particularly learning from a variety of organisations with a keen interest and role to play in making sure data ethics are embedded in the analytical discourse. We also had the opportunity to contribute to ideas and future plans for the Centre itself.

The key issues raised within the discussion are open to view in the recently published roundtable discussion note and highlight the range and variety of perspectives and thoughts in this broad topic area – it certainly made for an engaging discussion! Points covered included data sharing mechanisms, the relationship between the law and ethics, embedding the cultural dimension of ethical practice, and the wide range of stakeholders and ‘users’ that all have a role to play in the data journey.

Enabling ethically appropriate research and analysis has always involved a consideration of what we ‘should’ do, but the discussion broadened out our collective thinking in a stimulating way. One of the first points raised in the discussion highlighted the importance of also emphasising the ‘how’ we should act with confidence to make sure data ethics have primacy in our research. Not using available data to develop insights and help policy makers make better decisions presents an ethical issue all of its own, and we should focus our efforts on how we can enable ethical research to take advantage of the opportunity that this data provides.

I hope that you enjoy reading the product of our discussions and reflecting on the ideas and insights that it contains. Both across government, and outside of it, a collaborative approach to thinking about, and addressing, the challenges involved in applying data ethics to research, analysis and statistics is vital. The data ethics landscape is vast and continues to grow – if we are going to help and support the research and statistical community to effectively navigate this landscape against a backdrop of new data sources and increasingly complex data sets and methods, we must work together to ensure a cohesive, clear and comprehensive approach for specialists and non-specialists alike.

If you have any feedback or comments related to the points raised in the discussion paper, I or the data ethics team will be more than happy to hear from you.