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Government accepts data ethics council proposal

The government accepts the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee’s recommendation that a data science ethics council is established at the Alan Turing Institute

The government has responded positively to the big data report published by the House of Commons select committee on Science and Technology in February 2016.

The report had called for “urgent action on the digital skills crisis” and on “overcoming public distrust over data sharing”. It also called for the establishment of a Council of Data Ethics in the Alan Turing Institute to address “well-founded” public concern about privacy and security.

The committee’s chair, Conservative member of Parliament (MP) Nicola Blackwood, recently spoke at a techUK “data-driven” economy focused event in London. She told the audience that the committee’s recommendation that a data ethics council is established to oversee the government’s use of personal data sets has been accepted.

“Hopefully, we shall see some progress on that,” she said, adding that there needs to be more research into data anonymisation to ensure public confidence in such matters as healthcare research based on patient data.

The committee’s original report had stated: “The government should establish a Council of Data Ethics in the Alan Turing Institute as a means of addressing the growing legal and ethical challenges associated with balancing privacy, anonymisation, security and public benefit.”

The government’s response, which the committee received on 21 April 2016, said: “The government agrees with the committee’s proposal for independent oversight [of data science ethics] and will consider how a Council for Data Science Ethics should be established.

“This body would address key ethical challenges for data science and provide technical research and thought leadership on the implications of data science across all sectors. The Alan Turing Institute is well placed to play a leading role and to be a convening power.”

The response also pointed out: “Some government departments already have their own ethical committees of experts in their policy areas.

“For example, the UK Statistics Authority have established an independent National Statistician’s Data Ethics Advisory Committee to consider projects and policy proposals relating to access, use and sharing of data for statistics and research purposes.”

Mark Coté, programme director, digital culture and society at King's College, London said, in a response to the government's riposte to the committee's report: "the Council of Data Ethics should look at cultivating 'proportionate, secure and well-governed' data sharing among citizens to ensure that social and cultural value is generated from our data, as opposed to exclusively economic. While we must continue to safeguard privacy, this must not inhibit creative and critical approaches to engendering the big data we generate as a collective resource and public good".

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TechUK’s deputy CEO Antony Walker told Computer Weekly: “Where the council comes in is with thinking ahead to things such as: ‘What are the ethics of our use of artificial intelligence?’

“With these profound questions we need to draw in not just the technologists and lawyers, but the ethicists and philosophers. Science fiction writers have addressed these questions too. I’d like to see such a council be broadly based, pulling in people who think about these questions in the round.”

Government’s digital strategy

The government’s response, published as an appendix to the original report, said it will publish a “digital strategy” document later in 2016 to “set out how we will continue to support the adoption of digital technologies”.

The government said it has invested £520m since the Conservative-led Coalition government came to office in 2010.

With respect to what the committee calls a “digital skills gap”, the response document said the government is investing £40m in data science centres to produce PhD graduates, as well as £19.5m to develop data-heavy undergraduate education. It is also providing data science training to civil servants.

The response re-stated the George Osborne’s most recent budget announcement of £10m funding for an Office for National Statistics “hub for data science”, prompted by the Bean report into government economic statistics, published in March 2016.

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