Since its launch in February 2021, the UK Statistics Authority’s Centre for Applied Data Ethics has been making great strides in its work within the wider international data ethics community. Collaborating and engaging with international data ethics organisations is one of the key aims of the Centre, and by sharing our experiences, and learning from the experiences of others, we hope to develop an international workstream which addresses some of the most prominent ethical challenges facing researchers and statisticians today.
In our last international update, we outlined the scoping phase of our international work, which included a summary of findings from a survey of current data ethics challenges and priorities in other National Statistical Institutes. Themes emerging from the survey included issues of data privacy, the difficulty in allowing efficient, maximal and timely access to confidential and sensitive data, and engaging with researchers and statisticians to support the consideration of ethical issues in their work.
In response to these findings, the Centre for Applied Data Ethics hosted an introductory meeting with several of the organisations who responded to our survey. This was a fantastic opportunity to share experiences and learnings regarding data ethics governance processes within the statistical context, including key challenges and future opportunities for learning and engagement on this issue.
The meeting was attended by representatives of organisations from 8 different countries . Each organisation was given the opportunity to summarise their data ethics processes and approaches, and discussion focused on what works well and where challenges remain, particularly in relation to the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. From this, three key themes emerged.
The first of these was data ethics policies. Discussion focused on the potential need for organisations to create new ethics policies, or to build upon existing ethics policies, to ensure that researchers are better supported in applying ethics to their research. This was a particularly prominent priority as a result of COVID-19, which has seen organisations react to an increasing need for statisticians and researchers to access, process, use and store personal data for research and statistics in new ways. The need to ensure data privacy measures are sufficient, whilst managing the timeliness of research was seen as an increasing priority.
The second theme emerging from these discussions was the difficulty in balancing the utilisation of data for research and statistics with the appropriate ethical considerations. Increasing interest in accessing and analysing data for research purposes means that it is important to enable researchers to utilise the data available to them, ensuring timely and maximal access, whilst ensuring that this is used for the public good, and collected, stored, and disseminated appropriately. This was echoed in the earlier survey.
Finally, distinguishing between the needs of statistical and operational data use emerged as a key theme throughout the discussion. Whilst the remit of the UK Statistics Authority’s Centre for Applied Data Ethics focuses on the use of data for research and statistics, it was identified that engaging with users from both spaces could be beneficial. Indeed, it is important that as national statistical organisations, we do not work in a silo, and there is a lot to be learnt from the way in which we engage with data and research to address a range of different needs. This means further engaging with the different ethical considerations that may arise when data is being used for different purposes.
In the next phase of our work, the Centre will be convening further “deep-dive” discussions with interested organisations on the topics that emerged from our introductory meeting. The first of these is planned for October and will focus on exploring different approaches to data ethics policies. The Office for National Statistics has recently published a data ethics policy, and this will be a great opportunity to learn from others as to how they approach these policies, and what the key challenges and requirements relating to data privacy and ethics measures are internationally.
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.