The new Special Interest Group (SIG) on Data Ethics held its first meeting on Tuesday 11th December, at Lift in Islington, London which attracted a small audience. The meeting included presentations of work from SIG committee members on the wider landscape of data ethics and how the RSS can find a place for members to engage.
Tom King presented some of the work reviewing the landscape, including the role of new national bodies in the UK and engagement with other interested organisations. There are opportunities for RSS members to engage with the SIG and there are plans for next year's RSS conference in Belfast to include a one-day ‘data ethics’ themed stream and a fringe event with BBC Northern Ireland. A review of education initiatives found many who were enthusiastic to write ethics into curriculum but a lack of guidance of what to teach and how to embed it. Professional issues are being taken forward by many groups, including the Data Science Section (in partnership with the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries).
Peter Elias, in the chair, mentioned the importance of public engagement, something the SIG would look into. Members attending raised their own concerns about engagement and misconceptions and the need for legal as well as ethical responses. Health is a particular concern to some privacy groups who have opposed use of data in the past and regulation has been uncoordinated and overlapping. Geospatial ethics was contested - a threshold of aggregation does not protect against disclosure of rare sensitive characteristics and it lacks a proportionate basis. The need for more members to engage with these issues both with the RSS and taking places on regulatory boards was made.
Timandra Harkness then presented a series of examples of how the media was responding to the new uses of data, particularly personal data. While two years ago these things were not discussed they were now commonly coming up in media reports, and reporting was better and more detailed than might be expected. While headlines were often sensationalised, the examples given showed serious consideration of ethical issues. The MailOnline, for example, included a piece of investigative journalism which discussed the balance of ethical issues of public benefits and possible harms. There were strong stories on the human angle from individuals sharing their data to experts who had reservations about government intrusion - the depth, balance and insight of the reporting shown took many by surprise.
Kevin McConway followed with further media reporting and his own insight from working extensively with the Science Media Centre. A particular example showed what could go wrong with the reporting of AI when headlines appeared declaiming new plans to inspect schools. This was in a context of lobbying against the use of ‘data’ in school inspections, over professional judgements. The media actually had fairly detailed discussion of the screening and targeting uses planned in order to prioritise schools for inspection, which would then be based on the desired professional judgement. But a formal denial of such concerns about inspection by AI alone was still issued later on in a saga which lasted for several months.
Finally, Simon Whitworth from the National Statistician’s Data Ethics Advisory Committee offered an external counterpoint. The new provisions of the Digital Economy Act (2017) to access data for research have been approved by parliament and first applications will be considered by a new Research Accreditation Panel in December 2018. This new work has meant new development of processes; particularly noteworthy are steps to further transparency and public engagement.
The meeting closed with a brief presentation from Olivia Varley-Winter, an RSS staff member currently seconded to the Nuffield Foundation. The Ada Lovelace Institute, in which the RSS is a founding partner, has published its prospectus, and is already moving forward thinking on the subject of data and AI ethics. Presentations from Onora O’Neill and Alan Wilson at the launch event are particularly recommended and can be viewed here.
Many of the audience then decamped to King’s Place where RSS President David Spiegelhalter was giving a Turing Lecture on algorithms.