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Three actions for ethical data collection during Covid-19

(Image credit: Image Credit: Shutterstock/Sergey Nivens)

To curb the spread of Covid-19 our response has been put in place immediate measures to maintain organisational functionality. With the urgent issues we cannot help but to use the best solution we have at hand however data and analytics leaders must take the time to look at how they are handling data.

Leaders need to apply data ethics to their decision-making process when collecting, using and sharing data, especially during the Covid-19 crisis - if not, they risk causing more harm than good.

Understandably, many processes at this time cannot be too complicated and thinking about, then applying, data ethics is not. Ethics is simply about promoting good practice and avoiding the bad, which is exactly what teams should be trying to achieve when dealing with Covid-19.

Data and analytics leaders are already playing a pivotal role in guarding against data misuse through the pandemic crisis. But it is important to avoid falling into the trap of being too single-minded or outcome-determinative in decision making around the collection, use and sharing of data to combat the crisis and the data dilemmas that arise from it.

Balancing the need for swift and decisive action with clear and ethical data use is achievable by following important three steps. In the short-term this will curb data misuse, especially from unknown data reuse and resharing, and maintain business value resiliency. In the long-term, the added skills of apply data ethics to decision making will prove to be an invaluable tool long after the crisis has resolved.

Share your data, insights and talent across the public and private sectors

Data sharing practices needs to align with core ethical values and business priorities to safeguard against data misuse. Organisations have opportunities to contribute to the crisis response by share data with others, both in commercial enterprise and government. For example:

  • Helping supply chains, manufacturing and logistics by sharing data and insights with other commercial entities.
  • Contribute talent, technology or data as part of your crisis response.

In addition to health and human services agencies, other government agencies could equally benefit from commercial data assets:

  • Public safety agencies can capture masses of data from surveillance cameras and drones as officers patrol quarantined areas to track and prevent movement at their borders.
  • Law enforcement agencies can use predictive analytics, virtual assistants or other AI-enabled interventions to identify likely targets for scams (usually the most vulnerable citizens) and prevent fraud from occurring.
  • Tourism agencies can track decline in hotel and museum reservations to assess the economic impact on the industry.
  • Economic development and industry agencies can use data to forecast possible bankruptcies, shop closures and criticalities in supply chains.
  • Education departments in areas where schools are closed can track the progress of curricula in kindergarten through high school.

However, ethical dilemmas can arise in these situations with third-parties as well as within your organisation. Practical questions leading to ethical data dilemmas immediately come up when considering what data should be collected, how it should be used and shared, and more importantly, how to mitigate data misuse, including from reuse and resharing. The solutions to many of the dilemma are born through collaborative efforts.

Collaborate with others on the decision-making process

Good data ethics come from multiple perspectives and the intent to do the right thing at the right time. It’s the process of aggregating different perspectives for discussion and debate that matters, especially when some desired outcomes may be unattainable.

Collaboration will lead to a more balanced and measured way of deciding whether to collect data, how to use it and with whom to share it and setting the right conditions to ensure mitigating data misuse.

For this to work leaders need to make sure they have access to a range of different perspectives in their committee. This group of people need to be able to respond quickly and work together in determining arguments for and against difficult decisions on data collection, use and sharing.

In addition, it is useful to regularly review examples from areas of the world who have already experienced these data dilemmas – China is a good source to look in regards to work-from-home (WFH) employees, customer non-performance and government surveillance, among others. Discussing these case studies with other leaders in your organisation who may have different perspectives regarding employee privacy and leniency for customers’ contractual performance will allow organisations to reach a fair decision for the most people.

Re-evaluate temporary measures regularly and return to normal where possible

Temporary measures around data collection, use and sharing should stay temporary. It is wise to limit the number of people who have access to your own data to the most essential parties, and when this crisis is over, if appropriate, prepare to discard the information you have collected once it has served its limited purpose.

By tracking how different parties have used your data and what benefits it brought them will allow you identify which partnerships you may be able to continue and what new process you may be able to introduce.

For example, the U.S. healthcare privacy regulations (HIPAA — Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) has always restricted telehealth practices, which are now being permitted. This is a practice that perhaps should be continued.

Temporary measures include actions like Italy reportedly searching anonymised data from Facebook, local Telcos that aggregate users’ movement to help with contact tracing or other forms of monitoring, or police in Florida setting up a highway checkpoint on the state border to screen for drivers from New York City. These measures have little to no benefit to the population after the crises and are likely to be stopped when it is safe to do so.

A look at the long term

Making sure your decision making is driven by data ethics will turn out to be an invaluable experience and an added skill to the organisation long after the crisis has resolved. What would normally be a long process of culture change to include data ethics into your data and analytics strategy, can now be achieved in a short time and under pressure.

I recommend you leaders keep notes of which decisions were made and the arguments for and against them so that after the crisis the team can debrief and turn this into a process.

Let a group of people with different styles of critical thinking and moral reasoning form the basis of a data ethics advisory board that can help with the many dilemmas around data and analytics that are still to come.

Once the crisis is over, return to normal where possible, but retain what you have learned.

Lydia Clougherty Jones, Research Director in the Data and Analytics Group, Gartner

Lydia Clougherty Jones is a Research Director in the Data and Analytics Group at Gartner. She focuses on data sharing, ethics, and blockchain smart contracts.