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Digital ethics collection | Article

Ethics of use

Authored by William Barker, Martin Ferguson

“Ethics of use” aims to examine how service users and employees – as well as managers and partners of an organisation – use emerging technologies and data. This entails conducting an ethical evaluation of how people use the technological resources at their disposal.

Responding to the challenge

At the heart of ethical use of emerging technologies and data lies recognition that the processes and interactions they enable, and the outcomes that they generate, need to ensure public benefit and minimise unintended consequences.

Socitm’s starting point is the health and wellbeing of humanity – individuals, families, communities, societies – founded upon an ecology of interconnected, coexisting ecosystems as advocated in Kate Raworth’s conceptual framework of Doughnut Economics. The framework seeks to model ethical ways in which “people and planet can thrive in balance” and builds on the earlier initiatives such as International City/ County Management Association (ICMA) “Building Digitally Inclusive Communities”.

Considerations around how and why we use technologies and data run through the Socitm suite of ‘Smart Places’ guides. These guides demonstrate how emerging technologies and data and are the starting point in connecting infrastructures, businesses, communities, public services and individual citizens in ways that were previously impossible. Examples include:

  • Jobs: improved access for people in areas with persistent inter-generational unemployment.
  • Housing: accessible and varied.
  • Education: availability of high-quality education and sustained attainment.
  • Public health: healthy and safe environments and behaviours
  • Social care: improved coordination with health and police, earlier and better interventions for troubled families and the elderly.
  • Fraud reduction: identifying potential council tax and housing benefit fraud by finding signature “spatial patterns” in big data sets.
  • Businesses: sustained conditions for businesses and communities to innovate and thrive.
  • Smarter planning: smarter design and construction of new developments and better integrated transport for sustainable living.
  • Arts and culture: valuing diversity and facilitating access for all.
  • Changing community engagement: through social media and smartphone apps that give people a more attractive and interactive experience, including 3D visualisation

“Artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics are digital technologies that will have significant impact on the development of humanity in the near future. They have raised fundamental questions about what we should do with these systems, what the systems themselves should do, what risks they involve, and how we can control these.”

Source: Ethics of Artificial Intelligence and Robotics (April 2020)

More widely, a number of key resources are available to help embed “ethics by use” at the heart of adopting specific emerging technologies and data solutions:

  • The Office for Artificial Intelligence, the Government Digital Service and Alan Turing Institute, have developed a guide to using AI in the public sector on how to choose, build and use AI to ensure that public bodies are maximising the benefits of such technology. The guide provides organisations with a decision-making framework to help consider whether AI is the right and propionate solution for their project and outlines how to use AI safely and ethically.
  • Further guidance on this approach can be found in the Alan Turing Institute’s publication Understanding artificial intelligence ethics and safety, which acts as a guide for everyone involved in the design, production, and deployment of a public sector AI project: from data scientists and data engineers to domain experts and delivery managers.
  • The Open Data Institute has created ODI Open design patterns to help policymakers see how data could be used ethically to create impact. The patterns allow policymakers to easily understand whether data can be used to address those needs and provide some examples of where this pattern has been successfully used in other cases. Policymakers can then explore and test whether this pattern will meet the need in their particular context.
  • Taking a place-based approach, the Doughnut Economics Action Lab has developed a Creating City Portraits guide, which sets out a comprehensive methodology for how with the ethical use of technologies and data communities can become the home to thriving people, in a thriving place, whilst respecting the wellbeing of all people, and the health of the whole planet. The guide is particularly helpful for anyone directly or indirectly involved with the design of civic sector digital and data solutions or services.
  • The SHERPA Guidelines for the Ethical Use address ethical use and practice issues across smart information systems. The guidelines review five operational stages in the use of AI and Big Data – namely IT Management Strategy, Acquisition and Design, Deployment/ Implementation Service Operation Monitoring, and Assessment/ Improvement, outlining the ethical considerations that come into play and how together they embed ethical, digital practice and thinking across organisations and systems.

Wider points to consider

The following points to consider are by no means exhaustive so should be seen as a starting point to further discovery…

Is there a robust set of checks and balances built around political and executive scrutiny?

  • Focus on the adoption of due diligence frameworks, appropriate standards, principles together with accountable, public good focussed audit and risk regimes that allow for an effective measure of public participation in all the stages from initial evaluation to implementation

Are ethical rules for data collection and processing defined and shared internally within the organisation?

  • Raise staff awareness with data ethics training and workshops

Is there a framework for internal rights of access to personal and/or sensitive data?

  • Clearly define procedures for access to sensitive data based on employees’ profiles and roles

Are digital tools designed with the accessibility needs of disabled people in mind?

  • By default, design solutions that are accessible for people with disabilities

Are ethics-related issues addressed on a cross-functional basis within the organisation?

  • Consider establishing a Chief Digital Ethics Officer tasked with ensuring the overall coherence of the organisation’s “ethics and digital” policy
  • Put in place an awareness-raising programme for all employees (information and examples of best practice)

Are employees informed of how their data will be stored and processed, and their rights in this area?

  • Inform employees of how their data will be stored and processed, and their rights in this area (display, updating of internal regulations)

Are the consequences of the internal use of certain digital tools assessed?

  • Carry out an assessment of the impact of digital tools on the day-to-day experience of employees in the organisation.

Are the users of personalised services given the option to manage their settings?

  • Ensure that the information given to users is clear and transparent
  • Make it easy for users to change their personal data management settings, and to make informed choices

Are users informed of the terms of use of a digital solution or application?

  • Consider drawing up a digital user charter setting out the ethical terms of use of a solution
  • Look at setting out a framework for the use of a solution in contracts, and allow for stakeholder object to non-compliant use

Is there a policy allowing you to check, when digital solutions are built by a number of partners, that the whole process is ethical?

  • Ensure that the ecosystem is trustworthy and give each partner a vision of the purpose of the overall solution
  • Call on trusted third parties, certifications and/or labels, demonstrating the ethical commitment of each participating stakeholder