Glasgow local group: Will statistics get caught out by a data backlash?

On 28th January 2019, the RSS Glasgow local group hosted a lunchtime event with the executive director of the Royal Statistical Society, Hetan Shah, joined by an audience of around 35 people. Hetan’s talk gave an overview of the rise in data fuelled technologies including algorithms and artificial intelligence, and some resultant concerns about privacy, bias and accountability. The potential 'data backlash' he warned of would affect the work of statisticians, and it is therefore vital that we engage with these issues as a Society.

In his talk, Hetan covered associated ethics, privacy, culpability and data ownership aspects. The spectrum of potential arising scenarios ranges from privacy advocates achieving non-use of data, to private corporations exclusively harvesting all data. On ethical use of data, Hetan touched on the idea of counterfactuals: what are the consequences of not utilising the amassed data? Since humans as decision-makers are not very consistent, we can always benefit from more data to improve our decision-making processes. However, this should be as open and transparent as possible. Current areas of related investigation include exploring bias in algorithms and looking at different incentives in recommendation systems.

On data ownership, the discussion centred around the trade-off between giving our information away in return for a service, versus self-ownership with associated potential benefits in return. However, this places the onus of management on the individual. There is a point to be made about big internet and technology companies being regarded more like public utility companies as distinct from other big corporations. This mindset might clarify the way they should be regulated in the present and future, as well as how we relate to them as individuals.

The Society has been at the forefront in advocating that public benefit be placed at the heart of considerations around ethics and governance. These can be framed around contemplation of the losses resulting from data not being used for the benefit of the public. Hetan also pointed out that the public sector can avoid missing a trick by realising the potential of their available data. In the spirit of 'democracy must not be done in the dark', the Society has engaged with entities such as the Nuffield Foundation, ultimately resulting in the recent establishment of the civil society entity the Ada Lovelace Institute.

The interactive discussion session touched on themes spanning GDPR, implications of Brexit, accountability of political campaigns, self-regulation by multinational corporations, implications for research and the Society’s intersection with the data science realm. The session concluded with reference to the Society’s a document which outlines the data ethics landscape in the United Kingdom (PDF) including topics like data governance, accountability, and potential action points.


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