It has become clear that Big Data is not only an enabler of radical changes in technology and business, but also a source of radical changes in society and in people’s daily lives. And, as with many emerging technologies, Big Data offers opportunities, as well as challenges. This is the case, e.g., for Predictive Policing, Quantified Self and all sorts of other Big Data applications and services.
Many discussions of Big Data depart from a legal perspective and address, e.g., what is legally permitted. As a complement, we will explore, in this blog, the ‘Ethics in Big Data’, i.e. the various ethical issues at play in developing and deploying Big Data applications.
Let us illustrate what we mean with ‘Ethics in Big Data’, by giving some examples of questions and issues that can arise during the development and deployment of (Big) Data applications–issues that can impact society and can raise ethical questions:
- Data Selection and Collection: the selection of sources to be included (or excluded), they ways in which missing data points are dealt with–and the ways in which this can, unintentionally, discriminate against certain (‘minority’) groups
- Data Processing and Modelling: the usage of (implicit) assumptions, prior knowledge or (existing) categories to interpret or label data–which can, often unintentionally, propagate existing biases or unfairness
- Data Presentation and Action: including, e.g., (unintentional) ‘framing’, and suggestions towards specific interpretations and actions–which can lead to questions about agency: who is in charge, the people or the data?
Framework and workshop format
In order to enable people in the industry to engage with ethical questions like this, we we developed a framework, which also serves as a practical workshop format. The framework consists of three rows (data selection and collection; data processing and modelling; data presentation and action) and three or more columns, with key ethical values–values that are key in a liberal, democratic society:
- Autonomy and Freedom: people’s capability to form a conception of ‘the good life’ and the practical ability to realize this (‘positive freedom’), and to act without being obstructed by others (‘negative freedom’)
- Fairness and Equality: the capability for people to be treated fairly or equally, e.g., regarding the distribution of goods and evils between people, and to share the consequences of disadvantageous situations
- Transparency and Accountability: the capability of people to understand how organizations, both public and private, use their personal data, and the implications of Big Data applications for their personal and social lives.
- Other values: Please note that this list of (ethical) values can be augmented; we can add other values, depending on the context of the application and the organization, e.g., values like: Privacy, Solidarity, Dignity, Authenticity.
This framework facilitates people to identify and discuss key ethical questions in a systematic manner, i.e. in the different cells of the table, e.g., questions concerning privacy, representation, agency, interpretation, uncertainty, and algorithmic fairness. Very practically, the framework can function as the basis for a workshop format.
Typically, a group of 4-6 people, who are involved in the development and deployment of a specific Big Data application, are invited to discuss a series of ethical questions (typically 3 out of the 9 cells are most relevant), and to explore ways to deal with these questions, and to develop practical solutions. This workshop can be done in 90-120 minutes.
This framework is based on the classical idea of eudaimonia, which refers to people’s flourishing and wellbeing, both on the level of individuals and on the level of society.
We have done this workshop with people of NPO, who were working on ‘MyNPO’, an app that will offer personalized media content, using advanced data analysis of people’s behavior patterns, and with people from the Municipality of Rotterdam, who are exploring ways to analyse data on citizens to forecast future needs for social services. The results of doing the Responsible Data Innovation workshop are the following:
- Clarity on which ethical issues are at play
- Suggestions for dealing with these issues
- Action points for furthering the development
Please contact Dr. Marc Steen of TNO (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you are interested in this framework.