How data-savvy cities can tackle growing ethical considerations

Bloomberg Cities Network: “Technology for collecting, combining, and analyzing data is moving quickly, putting cities in a good position to use data to innovate in how they solve problems. However, it also places a responsibility on them to do so in a manner that does not undermine public trust. 

To help local governments deal with these issues, the London Office of Technology and Innovation, or LOTI, has a set of recommendations for data ethics capabilities in local government. One of those recommendations—for cities that are mature in their work in this area—is to hire a dedicated data ethicist.

LOTI exists to support dozens of local boroughs across London in their collective efforts to tackle big challenges. As part of that mission, LOTI hired Sam Nutt to serve as a data ethicist that local leaders can call on. The move reflected the reality that most local councils don’t have the capacity to have their own data ethicist on staff and it put LOTI in a position to experiment, learn, and share out lessons learned from the approach.

Nutt’s role provides a potential framework other cities looking to hire data ethicists can build on. His position is based on job specifications for data ethicists published by the UK government. He says his work falls into three general areas. First, he helps local councils work through ethical questions surrounding individual data projects. Second, he helps them develop more high-level policies, such as the Borough of Camden’s Data Charter. And third, he provides guidance on how to engage staff, residents, and stakeholders around the implications of using technology, including research on what’s new in the field. 

As an example of the kinds of ethical issues that he consults on, Nutt cites repairs in publicly subsidized housing. Local leaders are interested in using algorithms to help them prioritize use of scarce maintenance resources. But doing so raises questions about what criteria should be used to bump one resident’s needs above another’s. 

“If you prioritize, for example, the likelihood of a resident making a complaint, you may be baking in an existing social inequality, because some communities do not feel as empowered to make complaints as others,” Nutt says. “So it’s thinking through what the ethical considerations might be in terms of choices of data and how you use it, and giving advice to prevent potential biases from creeping in.” 

Nutt acknowledges that most cities are too resource constrained to hire a staff data ethicist. What matters most, he says, is that local governments create mechanisms for ensuring that ethical considerations of their choices with data and technology are considered. “The solution will never be that everyone has to hire a data ethicist,” Nutt says. “The solution is really to build ethics into your default ways of working with data.”

Stefaan Verhulst agrees. “The question for government is: Is ethics a position? A function? Or an institutional responsibility?” says Verhulst, Co-Founder of The GovLab and Director of its Data Program. The key is “to figure out how we institutionalize this in a meaningful way so that we can always check the pulse and get rapid input with regard to the social license for doing certain kinds of things.”

As the data capabilities of local governments grow, it’s also important to empower all individuals working in government to understand ethical considerations within the work they’re doing, and to have clear guidelines and codes of conduct they can follow. LOTI’s data ethics recommendations note that hiring a data ethicist should not be an organization’s first step, in part because “it risks delegating ethics to a single individual when it should be in the domain of anyone using or managing data.”

Training staff is a big part of the equation. “It’s about making the culture of government sensitive to these issues,” Verhulst says, so “that people are aware.”..(More)”.