What are Ethical Uses of Data?

Ethical questions are critical to effective and responsible use of data.  Since they are often overlooked, I’ll be making special effort to weave conversations about ethics into each module of this course. There are no standards in the industry around ethics right now, thought there are many efforts underway.

In our review of Joel Gurin’s paper Open Governments, Open Data: A New Lever for Transparency, Citizen Engagement, and Economic Growth, students reflected on ethical questions related to three proposed scenarios.  Below is a short summary of their first set of responses to these scenarios.

Scenario 1: Big Data

a company is logging purchases made by each customer and using the transaction data to make personalized marketing efforts

The key questions discussed were about:

  • ownership – people could reasonably assume they own this information, not the companies
  • transparency – people often aren’t aware this data is being collected about them
  • secondary uses – this data is often sold to third parties to do analysis
  • unintended impacts – citing the famous Target “you’re pregnant” story
  • reinforcing existing filter bubbles – personalized marketing might reinforce purchase decisions that you don’t want to make anymore

Scenario 2: Open Data

a data analytics firm is analyzing social media sentiments towards a politician to gauge their electability

Here students were concerned about:

  • representativity – social media is seldom a reflection of society at large
  • trustworthiness – people often make this up
  • ownership / permission – people posting to social media often aren’t giving explicit permission to these uses

Scenario 3: Local Data

a city government is using a 311 phone service to monitor and resolve constituent concerns

The students had these questions about this situation:

  • trustworthiness – constituents could make fake reports to get people in trouble
  • anonymity – one students shared a story of poorly anonymized data
  • accuracy – many of the calls might be hard to categorize in their system, and their code-book might be inconsistently applied

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