Data Ethics: Beyond GDPR

Over the next few weeks we’ll be bringing you a series of articles on data ethics. We’ll be taking a look at what data ethics means for the housing sector and what the future has in store for this field. We’ll also be putting ourselves under the microscope and giving you a look at how we treat data and how that coincides with our organisation’s values.

We will also be taking a more in-depth look at some of the specific strands of data ethics that this article touches upon, as well as sharing the codes of practice we ourselves use to inform our own data policy in upcoming articles.

Over the next few weeks we’ll be bringing you a series of articles on data ethics. We’ll be taking a look at what data ethics means for the housing sector and what the future has in store for this field. We’ll also be putting ourselves under the microscope and giving you a look at how we treat data and how that coincides with our organisation’s values.

We will also be taking a more in-depth look at some of the specific strands of data ethics that this article touches upon, as well as sharing the codes of practice we ourselves use to inform our own data policy in upcoming articles.

“Ethics and innovation are not mutually exclusive. Thinking carefully about how we use our data can help us be better at innovating when we use it”

The Rt Hon Matt Hancock MP, Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

Data ethics describes the approaches and value judgments that apply to the building, sharing or analysis of data. Increasingly, how data is handled is becoming entrenched in how products, businesses and infrastructure are built. This year saw the opening of the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation within government. The Centre is set to anticipate the challenges, opportunities and real-world implications digital transformation poses to our security. Many of these business, geopolitical and value arguments are playing out in the public realm, as in the recent case of the UK’s 5G network and tech giant Huawei’s involvement.

A series of widely publicised data breaches in 2017 showed that many companies were either acting ignorantly with regards to their data or in some cases, were wilfully reckless. Legislation such as GDPR and standards like ISO go some way to bringing organisations under compliance, however with capabilities growing fast, existing frameworks aren’t catchall systems. Whilst there is no universal code for data ethics, there are five key principles that are widely acknowledged:

  1. Privacy

Any information given by a customer should be protected by the same privacy and security safeguards that an organisation would expect for their own data. 

  1. Transparency

Customers should be informed directly of how their data is being used or sold.

  1. Confidentiality

Companies that handle delicate data, such as financial or medical, should be restricted in how, or even if that information is shared further.

  1. Bias

The unconscious and conscious bias in populations can be amplified through machine learning. Data and algorithms should not further institutionalise any form of prejudice or discrimination.

  1. Human Will

As digital predictions become more accurate, companies need to take care over their inferences and never interfere with human will. Seamless services should not override an individual’s decision.

Across housing associations and local authorities there is a wealth of data available, which is often stored across a variety of platforms and not shared in a joined-up approach with other institutions. A survey conducted by Phoenix Software and IT company, VMware found that three quarters of the housing associations asked didn’t ‘think their organisation is capable of effectively using the information it stores’.  The harnessing of this information should begin with defining the user need; identifying the benefits and value that can be drawn out of this data will translate into better provision of services.

At Housing Partners we consider data a tool for driving decisions. With the complex decisions that housing sector professionals deal with every day, there will often never be one single ‘right path’. In order to decide upon a course of action swiftly, officers need to be working within a determined value set with a wealth of information readily available to them.

Today, computer scientists wield tremendous power. The code they write can be used by billions of people, and influence everything from what news stories we read, to what personal data companies collect, to who gets parole, insurance or housing loans. Software can empower democracy, heighten opportunity, and connect people continents away. But when it isn’t coupled with responsibility, the results can be drastic. In recent years, we’ve watched biased algorithms and broken recommendation engines radicalize users, promote racism, and spread misinformation.Responsible Computer Science Challenge

Development teams are at the heart of embedding an organisation’s value set; it’s essential to have an ethics strategy for data that’s reflected in the software used by an organisation. In the case of compliance, GDPR forced the hand of many companies to consider their data management and while we’re yet to see the longer-term results, it’s clear that a thorough mentality needs to be adopted with regards to maintaining the relevancy of the data held. One shift that we’ve seen over the past year is the volume of self-reported data breaches; there is now a far greater transparency when data issues do arise. Alongside a company’s data ethics guidelines, thought is now being put into how to react if the organisation were subject to a break or a hack.

An organisation’s data ethics policy should stem from an existing value structure, an example being the government’s own ‘Data Ethics Framework’ for the civil service and public bodies, which is directly constructed from the Civil Service Code – integrity, honesty, objectivity and impartiality. UK.GOV has created a Data Ethics Workbook for organisations in the public sphere to engage with as they build their data policies. Data ethics is not simply about adhering to legislation, it is also about defining the true value your service makes of the data it harnesses.

Housing Partners

Housing Partners is one of the leading providers of data and IT solutions to the landlord and local authority sector, with products and services spanning homelessness to home exchange. With hundreds of clients providing housing and housing services and tens of thousands of tenants using their HomeSwapper service, Housing Partners has a unique insight into the sector.

Housing Partners build a number of solutions for the social housing sector. If you would like to know more about what we do, please drop an email to info@housingpartners.co.uk