As we become better at collecting and analyzing data, it follows that treating data with the respect it deserves becomes crucial. Gathering and storing data securely and adhering to privacy laws and regulations is not enough on its own. An ethical approach to how data is collected and being used is already expected by users, as they are getting more educated and understand both the value, risks and threats of misuse their data bring.
Gathering data in situations the user is not aware of. Long user agreements that are designed to make it as good as impossible for people to read and understand how their data is being used. Users receiving emails in their inboxes and not understanding how you got hand of their contact details in the first place. Seeing patterns in your data analysis that shuts out a certain demographic group – and acting on it. All of these are examples of bad data ethics, and do not fly when faced with data-conscious users (whom are quickly becoming a bigger share of your customers).
We have not only a responsibility of collecting data in a transparent manner so that people understand when they are being tracked, but we also need to protect basic civil rights. Truly mastering big data means you have to become conscious of how you treat the data and how you act on the findings in an ethical manner.
Begin with your Data Strategy…
What you need to have in place first and foremost, is a conscious approach when establishing your data strategy. You should involve several parts of your organization in establishing this strategy, not only the IT department.
Your data strategy should, as a base, cover the following areas:
- Decide and make it clear to people when and how you collect data
- Clarify what data is used for (and not)
- Take control and responsibility of the data during its entire “lifespan”
- Ensure you adhere to laws and regulations
Questions you should ask yourself when establishing your data strategy:
- How is the data collected? Which sources are being used? Which kind of sources do you not wish to use and why?
- Is the data being matched with other datasets? Which ones?
- What is the data to be used for? What is it not to be used for?
- What kind of analytics should be shaped around the data? What should not?
- With whom (internally and externally) are the results of the data analysis shared? Anyone on the “no-share” list?
- What purposes are the ones receiving the dataset internally and externally using it for? Do you know for a fact that they are using the data for what they are supposed to?
- Do you know whether others are re-sharing the data with someone else? If so, what are they using it for?
- Who has access to your data internally, and how will you enforce that they adhere to the data strategy?
- How will you inform your organization on your data strategy?
– then follow up with your Digital Ethics Strategy
Once you have your basic data strategy in place, you need to move into the next level, which is to ensure that you treat your data in an ethical manner.
Much intelligence can be drawn from data, especially once you start looking at users´behavioural patterns. This kind of insight most often reside deep down in company data, and can gain subtantially more value when coupled with the right dataset that lives somewhere else. The pairing of data can create new levels of intelligence and findings, that might become ethically difficult.
It has already been conducted studies that show that big data can be a tool for exclusion of certain demographic groups. The New York Times ran a “Room for Debate” series about big data not too long ago, where one of the opinion pieces was about how big data might be spreading inequality. You need to ensure that you take a solid run through what you believe is the right way to treat the data, and ensure your data insight is not used in an ethically bad way.
These are the main areas you should look into when deciding on your digital ethics strategy:
- CONSUMER CONTROL: Put the user in control by informing them and making it available for them to easily opt out. Make it easy for the user to also share more data, and have an overview they have easily access to over what data you have about them.
- ACCOUNTABILITY: Act as a guardian and protector of user data, people´s right to privacy, adhering to your digital ethics standards as well as laws and regulations set forth by authorities. Ensure you are in control that everyone with access to the data work along the same lines.
There is a humongous upside that lies in big data, and more and more companies are becoming aware of it. And, there is certainly a lot of good that can come out of the use of big data. However – there is also a backside to the insight we can find out from the analysis of huge datasets. There are several classic ethical questions that come up as a result. You need to take a stand on these. Remember – it is each and every one of us´responsibility to ensure that big data becomes a tool for inclusion rather than exclusion.
Part of this article was put together with the help of “The Web Analysts Code of Ethics” put together by The Digital Analytics Association.