Supporting researchers to apply data ethics

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Written by Simon Whitworth 18 March 2021

I have the pleasure of managing the UK Statistics Authority’s new Centre for Applied Data Ethics, which aims to provide applied data ethics support and guidance to the research and statistical community to enable ethically appropriate research and statistical production. More information can be found in the Centre’s strategy.

The Centre builds on work the UK Statistics Authority has undertaken over the last few years, developing ethical principles and a self-assessment tool to enable researchers to apply the principles to their research, as well as establishing the National Statistician’s Data Ethics Advisory Committee to provide independent ethics advice and assurance.

I am delighted to report that this work has proved popular and at the time of writing, the ethics self-assessment tool has been used to consider the ethics of over 400 research projects. It has been especially pleasing that the tool has been used across the breadth of the research community, with 55% of projects coming from outside of government.

This is all well and good, but the opportunities to use data for research and statistics are constantly evolving. Given where this blog is being published, I should acknowledge the significant role that the ADR UK investment has played in this!

Thinking on data ethics is also evolving at pace. We have just published a review of the UK’s data ethics landscape, which presents the large volume of innovative work that is happening in the data ethics space among different organisations. This all means it is important that we further improve our ethics self-assessment tool so that it continues to be valuable to researchers from across the research community and beyond.

So, we want to hear from users about their experiences using the tool and get their views on its strengths and weaknesses. To do this, we have launched a user review questionnaire. The feedback received will be used to inform the future development of the ethics self-assessment tool, and we will hold a workshop in the summer to discuss proposed changes with our users. More information about this will be announced on our website.

So, why is this important, I hear you ask? Well, concerns about data ethics are often cited as a barrier to unlocking the power of data for research purposes. My own view is that the best way to address these concerns is to engage with data ethics at the project design stage and throughout the lifecycle of the project, showing that we, as researchers, can provide evidence of robust consideration of the ethics of our research. The UKSA’s self-assessment tool provides an effective, applied framework to do this efficiently and thoroughly. The better we can make this tool, the more valuable a role it can play in helping to enable wider and more efficient access to data for research for the public good.

We look forward to hearing your feedback on the ethics self-assessment tool and working with you to further develop our services to the research community.

For more information on the work of the UK Statistics Authority’s Centre for Applied Data Ethics please visit their website, or feel free to contact the team at data.ethics@statistics.co.uk.     

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