This week, Nesta CEO Geoff Mulgan and UK Cabinet Office minister Matthew Hancock launched a new government Data Science Ethical Framework. Mulgan’s remarks from the launch were shared in a new blog post on the Nesta website. Mulgan begins by highlighting the outsized potential of data serving the public good:
“Almost everything we do now is captured as data - where we go, what we buy, who we talk to, and data is very much part of daily work at Nesta. We are involved heavily as an investor in some of the most promising early stage companies developing algorithms, such as Featurespace or Cogbooks; as a shaper of new kinds of statistics, for example combining open, commercial data and web-scraping to understand the economy in Tech Nation 2016; we’ve promoted data for social progress; helped use open data to solve public challenges; and are active in experiments right on the forefront of ethics, such as Dementia Citizens.
All of that makes us supportive of anything that will make it easier to run useful, imaginative experiments in data, and supportive of anything that makes it more likely that data can serve the public interest.”
He continues by focusing on the need for clearly defined ethics for the use of data for the public good:
“The public are right to distrust big institutions that have in the past been careless with their data: civil servants leaving computer discs in car parks or private companies losing vast databases. It’s also not easy because the data science field itself tends to be more fascinated with means than with ends, and has often failed to explain what problem it is trying to solve, or what need is being met.
The good news is that although there are plenty of gaps in public understanding and knowledge, citizens are highly pragmatic, willing to accept trade-offs, and to share data if they can see a benefit, even with the most sensitive personal data.
But that pragmatism is highly context specific. We can try to define general principles and then deduce specific applications. But in practice the discussions have to be around particular cases in particular places and times.
Government has no choice but to be part of the conversation. Private organisations can and should attempt to embed ethics and engage the public. But ultimately the rules will have to involve accountable public power, and it’s neither fair nor realistic to expect private firms to solve problems which are by their nature public…
[I]f governments ignore the question of data ethics, then it’s fairly guaranteed that periodic public backlashes will make it much harder to reap the full benefits of new tools.”