The government’s new Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation will be operating across a wide canvas, says Holly Armitage. But that doesn’t mean it can’t have a real impact.
Last Tuesday morning saw the government announce the board members of the upcoming Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation. The Centre – a world first – will be tasked with identifying and addressing “any areas where clearer guidelines and regulation is needed” to govern the use of data and data-enabled technologies. That’s quite a remit and one thing’s for sure: they have much to do.
Taking stock, starting work
So, where should they start? The Centre, which will operate as an independent advisor to the government, could well consider prioritising the need to inform public debates about how to use and regulate data and AI.
A good example of why this is so important – and relevant to the public – was made by digital minister Margot James last week, when she revealed how some airlines use an algorithm to identify passengers of the same surname travelling together. “They’ve had the temerity to split the passengers up, and when the family want to travel together they are charged more, she said.
The Centre can help prevent this sort of thing happening by bringing together the rapidly growing knowledge in this field and turning that into insight that shapes how data is used by organisations and thought about by the public.
This isn’t as easy as you might think. There are already plenty of other organisations active in the arena, so the Centre needs to avoid becoming just another voice. It must also be dynamic and responsive, able to keep pace with the latest developments. The next time a company steps out of line by creating an algorithm like the airlines, the Centre should be immediately on their case.
From steps to strides
When I was helping write BAE Systems' response to the government consultation on the Centre, we had some discussion about whether or not we thought the Centre should be placed on a statutory footing. After much back and forth we concluded that a statutory footing should only be considered when the Centre’s remit, activities and objectives are more clearly defined.
Ensuring this is understood is what enables others to engage with the Centre, so communication is a two way street. That’s why we strongly support the consultation’s emphasis on collaboration and promoting an inclusive environment.
Another priority should be delivering education and data literacy campaigns to ensure the public is able to engage with the issues in an informed manner. History has shown us that the full potential of emerging technologies cannot be achieved if the public are not engaged in their use.
Unfortunately, there is a general sense of confusion about how and where people should or shouldn’t be happy about the use of data. This is compounded by some elements of the media providing only superficial coverage, often relating to data breaches.
As a result, there is little public discourse about one of the major challenges for our time. The Centre, though, will be ideally placed to drive this conversation in the future. And with data and data-enabled technologies only going to take even deeper root across society, there is little time to waste.