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Using data ethically: tips from four influential organisations

Mon Oct 21, 2019
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Discover how organisations are not just being compliant with data law, but are being more ethical with how they collect, share and use data

Discover how organisations are not just being compliant with data law, but are being more ethical with how they collect, share and use data

Customer trust is one of the most valuable commodities in the modern economy. Companies are all too aware of the consequences that an oversight can have, particularly when it comes to how they look after and share customer data.

No business wants to have to go to the lengths Facebook did, to try and restore the faith of regulators and users, and to keep people from leaving the platform after its own data scandal in 2018.

We’ve been working with businesses and public sector organisations that are keen to ensure they have not just been compliant with data law, but are being more ethical in the way they collect, use and share data.

After developing and running training with organisations, and collating a Data Ethics Canvas encompassing many of the common questions we collectively believe organisations should consider when making decisions about how to collect, share or use data, we asked some of them what the greatest takeaway for their business has been.

Treat people justly

As customers are handing over a lot of data about them, you want to ensure that this data is safeguarded rigorously, not only to the letter of GDPR regulations, but that you are collecting and using the data without being discriminatory or unjust in any way, or deceiving people, no matter what your intentions.

Danny McCarthy from the Coop, which was awarded best data ethics and privacy initiative earlier this year, says: ‘You must respect the persons potentially impacted by the data you hold. Colleagues should be encouraged to ask themselves the question: would I want this piece of data about me made public?’

Ensure that real people are involved

Organisations need to go beyond conventional engagement methods to ensure that people are properly involved in decisions about how data is used, so says Nesta, the innovation foundation. Alice Clay, says ‘This can be done through the use of innovation and futures methods with diverse groups of people. For example, asking a diverse group of customers to consider what the future of data sharing in your industry could look as a way to stimulate discussion about issues in the present.’

Be aware of the consequences

People are coming to expect that businesses make a positive difference while causing minimal negative impacts. Samantha Brown from Doteveryone, the tech think tank founded and chaired by Martha Lane Fox, says: ‘In an increasingly data-enabled world, it’s essential that business leaders think about the consequences of how they collect, store, and use their customers’ data.

‘Organisations need to firstly be asking themselves about the intended and unintended consequences they’re hoping to have on their users, on the communities and sectors they operate within. Secondly, how can they bring forward the positives and mitigate consequences that might cause harm? Answering these questions allows organisations to open up a space for considering new and positive solutions to ensure their data practices align with their values and culture.’

Involve the whole team and be comprehensive

It is important to ensure that the right people from across the whole of your organisation are involved in considering how data is stored, used and shared. You can use a template to guide you through many of the issues that might affect your own data ethics.

The Open Data’s free Data Ethics Canvas can help ensure you have thought of many of the touch points where data ethics affects your business, product or project. These could include things like checking you have respected people’s rights around data, minimising the risk of any negative impact and being open and transparent. Make sure that the key people in the organisation understand the basic principles of handling data and of data ethics.

The Open Data Institute provides free online learning in open data and introductory courses in data ethics.

Learn more about data ethics and the services and advice we offer