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Digital ethics collection | Article

Beneficence: do good

Authored by William Barker, Martin Ferguson

Beneficence: “Do Good”:  That work is to the benefit, not detriment of individuals and society. The benefits of the work should outweigh the potential risks. Digital, data and technology that interact with people’s wellbeing, finances, relationships and health particularly require robust ethical principles.

Key themes

Human flourishing, well-being, dignity, common good, and sustainability.

Individual, societal, and environmental wellbeing: Sustainable and environmentally friendly AI and big data systems, individual wellbeing, social relationships and social cohesion, and democracy and strong institutions.

Because AI and big data systems can have huge effects for individuals, society, and the environment, systems should be trialed, tested, and anomaly-detected to ensure the reduction, elimination, and reversal of harm caused to individual, societal and environmental well-being.

Areas of focus

Requirements Stakeholder participation: to develop systems that are trustworthy and support human flourishing, those who will be affected by the system should be consulted.

Protection of fundamental rights: so that the exercise of individuals’ rights should be encouraged, as well as the creation of opportunities for public engagement.

Sustainable and environmentally friendly: the system’s supply chain should be assessed for resource usage and energy consumption.

Justification: the purpose for building the system must be clear and linked to a clear benefit – systems should not be built just for the sake of it.

Specific operational ethics requirements

It is important that any system seeks to maximise positive benefits to society and the environment, while limiting any potential harm as much as possible as follows:

  • Ensure that the system promotes sustainability and environmental friendliness;
  • Ensure the protection of individual wellbeing (including the development of human capabilities and access to social primary goods, such as opportunities for meaningful paid work);
  • Ensure the protection of societal wellbeing (the technology supports and does not harm rich and meaningful social interaction, both professionally and in private life, and should not support segregation, division and isolation); and
  • Ensure the protection of democracy and strong institutions to support democratic decision-making.

Ethical data handling considerations

Ethical and legislative contexts

What existing ethical codes apply to your sector or project? What legislation, policies, or other regulation shape how you use data? What requirements do they introduce? Consider: the rule of law; human rights; data protection; IP and database rights; antidiscrimination laws; and data sharing, policies, regulation and ethics codes/frameworks specific to sectors e.g. health, employment, taxation.

Your reason for using data

What is your primary purpose for collecting and using data in this project? What are your main use cases? What is your business model? Are you making things better for society? How and for whom? Are you replacing another product or service as a result of this project?

Positive effects on people

Which individuals, groups, demographics or organisations will be positively affected by this project? How? How are you measuring and communicating positive impact? How could you increase it?

Beneficence scrutiny questions

Q: How do we keep “Do Good” ethics in the spotlight?


Ethics is a pervasive aspect of good practice; ethical issues are intrinsically involved in ensuring good use of data and technologies.

This means:

Ethical considerations are ubiquitous and intrinsic to design, development, deployment and delivery, and individuals and organisations need to keep the ethics in the spotlight at all time.

Q: How do we prioritise human lives and interests in adopting emerging solutions?


Digital, Data and Technology (DDaT) interacts with the most important aspects of people’s lives: their wellbeing, their finances, their social relationships, and their emotional and mental health.

This means:

Emerging approaches and solutions need to focus on people’s needs, money, and wellbeing with due care and attention, ensuring that robust ethical principles and standards are applied when developing technologies that touch these and other important aspects of people’s lives.

Beneficence resources: supporting principles into practice

Socitm’s existing resource hub collections on smart places, location intelligence and harnessing data each demonstrate place-based ethical change that reflects the practical application of beneficence attributes. Likewise from an operational perspective, the Planting the flag – a new local normal initiative draws on the ideas and experience from members of Socitm and its partner associations that similarly can be seen to reflect the attributes in practice.

Similar approaches are at the heart of Doughnut Economics, the Doughnut Economics Action Lab (DEAL), City Portraits and their supporting database of project materials that model ethical ways in which “people and planet can thrive in balance”. They build on the earlier related concepts like the International City/County Management Association (ICMA) “Building Digitally Inclusive Communities framework.

Likewise, the SHERPA project that analyses how AI and data analytics impact ethics and human rights, reflects many of the attributes in practice. In dialogue with stakeholders, the project is developing novel ways to understand and address these challenges to find desirable and sustainable solutions that can benefit both innovators and society. It offers a series of workbooks and practical case studies on the ethical use, design and implementation in step with a beneficence approach.

Following on this work, the High-Level Expert Group on Artificial Intelligence (AI HLEG) has published the Ethics Guidelines for Trustworthy Artificial Intelligence and Assessment List for Trustworthy AI (ALTAI). The ALTAI guidance and web-based tool outline the key stages of ethical practice in an accessible and dynamic checklist that guides developers and deployers of AI in implementing such principles in practice.

The OECD Resources linked to Inclusive growth, sustainable development and well-being address the potential for trustworthy AI to contribute to overall growth and prosperity for all – individuals, society, and planet – and advance global development objectives.

The Digital Catapult outlines a set resources based around the benefice theme that they have identified in partnership with the Digital Ethics Lab and Alan Truing Institute, as part of their wider ethical typology and tools mapping work.

Ethics Kit is a toolkit devised by global community of designers, researchers, technologists, educators and academics. creating practical methods and tools for teams to include ethics in their design and operational processes.

Centre for Government Excellence – Johns Hopkins University Ethics Toolkit has been developed in a collaboration involving Johns Hopkins University GovEx team, the City and County of San Francisco, Harvard DataSmart, and Data Community DC. This practical toolkit is designed for cities to use to help them understand the implications of using an algorithm and clearly articulate the potential risks and ways to mitigate them.

Doteveryone has created a Consequence Scanning Manual, an iterative development tool, to help organisations think about the potential impact of their solutions or service on people and society. It is aimed at anyone directly or indirectly involved with the design of public sector digital and data solutions or services.

The Data Justice Lab data literacy guidebook provides an overview of different types of tools designed to be used in educating citizens about datafication and its social consequences. For anyone working directly or indirectly with data in the public sector, including data practitioners (statisticians, analysts and data scientists), policymakers, operational staff and those helping produce data-informed insight, it is designed to ensure the highest ethical standard of their projects.

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Ethics in Action Resources provide a range of materials on ethical standards development around the theme of benefice = do good as follows:

Case Studies