improving data science ethics

Just over a year ago the UK’s data science ethical framework was put out for consultation. The purpose of the framework was

to give civil servants guidance on conducting data science projects, and the confidence to innovate with data

The launch announcement stated that

The publication is a first version that we are asking the public, experts, civil servants and other interested parties to help us perfect and iterate

All of which is welcome – openly and collaboratively engaging on important, complex topics such as this is a good way for government to work.

However, since the launch it’s unclear what the status of the framework is. There are no indications of any consultation taking place, or resulting improvements, on the website. Without this iterative process, the risk is that the first draft of the framework becomes the flawed foundation on which everyday practice in data science ethics is established.

Two experts in this field, Charles Raab and Roger Clarke, have raised notable criticisms of the initial draft of the framework. Such critiques are exactly what’s needed as an integral part of the open consultative and iterative process for the framework, helping develop an updated and improved version.

Like many others, Raab and Clarke welcome the idea of a data science ethics framework, saying it will

be a welcome entrant into this field, enabling government to act ethically in its policy projects where “data science” is applied

However, they go on to make some strong criticisms of the early draft, saying that

To be effective, it would need to be precise, well-grounded in a grasp of privacy and other ethical dimensions, and clear in its guidance to those in the policy-making environment. Unfortunately, the Cabinet Office’s bid falls far short of these criteria

While some elements are regarded as a “useful contribution“, others are flagged as “a weak foundation“, falling “far short of providing the guidance needed by civil servants evaluating initiatives“, with some “seriously inadequate” and overall that “the most unsatisfactory feature of the principles and their use is the Framework’s flawed understanding of what ethics require“.

It ends with a worryingly strong conclusion, noting that

The document is seriously deficient. It is so weak as to have the appearance of purely nominal guidance, designed not to filter out inappropriate applications of data analytics, but rather to provide a veneer of respectability, to head off criticisms that government agencies are conducting big data activities on an ad hoc basis, and thereby to enable clear sailing for projects without serious and creative wrestling with knotty ethical issues.

The issue I’m concerned with here is not so much the specific merits of the analysis and critique that Raab and Clarke make, but that the open consultation – which could have evaluated and acted upon such feedback – does not seem to have happened. The consultation is where comments such as this should have been considered, evaluated and – where appropriate – acted upon. In the open. With either their criticisms rejected, with an explanation, or accepted into an improved framework.

The government’s intent here is clearly to be commended – to establish a credible data science ethics framework. But the execution since its launch lacks credibility. After all, it’s been over a year since that first draft was published. Unless I’m missing something, none of the promised consultation, iteration and improvement has taken place and no updated framework exists.

The result is that we have an important framework lacking in multiple areas, despite an evident willingness from various parties to help improve it. It will be particularly damaging if parts of government now rely upon this paper in the mistaken belief it provides a definitive and agreed reference – given that it was quite clearly never intended to be a finished work.

This failure to follow-through in such an important area is disappointing, particularly given the sensible intent to use an open process to ensure iterative improvements to the framework. It’s an opportunity missed to develop a better version – one that positions the UK in the vanguard of ethical governance for data science.

If there remains no visible, credible progress with an open consultation it will further fuel the idea that the framework was produced only “to provide a veneer of respectability” – to re-use one of Raab and Clarke’s observations. This would be damaging to the earlier good progress around UK government to “work in the open” and to be more consultative, collaborative and iterative on complex policy issues to deliver the best possible outcome.

Building out the UK’s data science efforts based on this unimproved first draft of the framework will weaken the UK’s position. It will undermine attempts to take positive advantage of the potential benefits of data science and to establish an example that others might follow.

It’s time the promised open consultation was reinvigorated. The original aspiration needs to be realised and an improved framework produced that illustrates how the UK can lead and inspire in this important area – enabling

people in government to feel confident using data science techniques to innovate.


[Transparency notice: Charles Raab and I were both members of the expert advisory group, 2008-2010, to the Scottish Government, developing Version 1 of their Identity Management and Privacy Principles]

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2 comments

  1. In large part, the lack of this getting taken forward is because the relevant civil servants have since left GDS, and that GDS has not been given mandate for leading on data analytics by other departments.

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