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Government updates data ethics framework

The new data ethics framework was created to better reflect how projects are run in practice after finding there was “little awareness” of the previous framework across the public sector

The UK's Government Digital Service (GDS) has released an updated data ethics framework for the public sector after finding “there was little awareness” across government of the previous version.

First published in June 2018, the framework’s aim is to set out how data should be used within the public sector by providing users with a set of seven guiding principles.

These included having an awareness of the relevant legislation and codes of practice, using data that is proportionate to user needs, understanding limitations of the data, and being transparent and accountable – which it said should be “regularly revisited throughout your project”.

According to a blog post by Natalia Domagala, head of data ethics at GDS, recent feedback gleaned from government data practitioners about how they were using the framework revealed a low level of awareness among users about its existence, which prompted the organisation into action.  

“Following the survey, we set up a series of workshops with stakeholders from the wider public sector, academia, civil society and industry. In each of the day-long workshops, participants were asked to apply the data ethics framework to a fictional policy scenario to identify areas for improvement in practice,” she said.

“The workshops provided space for identifying specific strengths and weaknesses of each principle of the framework and asked for feedback on the relevance, design and potential options of mandating the framework.”

The new version of the framework consists of three overarching principles – transparency, accountability and fairness – that will apply to every stage of working with data, as well as five specific actions that, unlike the previous version, map directly onto the public sector’s project processes. 

These specific actions include clearly defining and understanding the purpose of any new data-related project and the public benefit it will bring; involving diverse expertise and external stakeholders; complying with the relevant data protection laws; reviewing the quality and limitations of the data being used; and continually evaluating the project to ensure it is still working to achieve the stated public benefit.

Each action point is accompanied by further guidance on how to apply it. For example, on the fourth principle of reviewing data quality and limitations, the framework said public servants involved in data projects must use the minimum data necessary to achieve the desired outcome.

It asks those in the public to consider, among other things, whether the same goals can be achieved “with less identifiable data”, what measures are in place to control access to personal data, and whether the proposed use of secondary data would make people less likely to provide the data for the primary purpose.

“We have also added a simple self-scoring system to help summarise the ethical consideration of the project. If the self-assessment process flags any potential issues, we encourage the project leads to amend their projects accordingly and consult more widely with organisational ethics boards or officers,” said Domagala.

She added that each part of the framework was designed to be regularly revisited throughout a project’s lifecycle, “especially when any changes are made to your data collection, storage, analysis or sharing processes”.

The ethics framework update follows the government’s publication of its long-awaited national data strategy in early September 2020, which is designed to help foster innovation and increase economic growth.

The strategy includes plans to introduce primary legislation to increase participation in what are being called “smart data initiatives”. These are said to be aimed at giving people the ability to use their own data to find better tariffs for telecoms, energy and pensions.

It also restates the long-standing intention to appoint a government chief data officer “to lead a whole-government approach to transforming the government’s use of data to drive efficiency and improve public services”.

Still a work in progress, the government has launched a “consultation to help shape the core principles of the strategy, our ambitions for the use of data across the economy and policy proposals”, said a statement from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) at the time.

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