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Published by Lucy Bernholz
Concept memo for Ethics of Data in Civil Society Conference
Concept memo for Ethics of Data in Civil Society Conference

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Published by: Lucy Bernholz on Aug 22, 2014
Copyright:Traditional Copyright: All rights reserved


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The Ethics of Data in Civil Society Framing questions and purpose statement for Conference
Civil society is where we act as private citizens on behalf of a greater public. It includes our actions as volunteers and organizers as well as donors, disaster responders, and providers of social, cultural or environmental programming and services. Digital data and information communication technologies are changing civil society as rapidly and profoundly as they are business and government. Civil society’s unique relationships between private actors and public benefits requires the articulation of its own principles for the ethical use of digital data and associated tools (networks, algorithms, storage). Some of these urgent challenges civil society groups are grappling with in the digital age include:
INFORMED CONSENT: Traditional concepts of informed consent no longer adequately equip groups to ethically handle social media, metadata, satellite imagery, and community identifying information.
DO NO HARM: Institutions attempting to “do no harm” when handling digital data do not have common standards for assessing what that harm might be, identifying who could be harmed, and mitigating how that harm might be manifested.
EVIDENCE VERIFICATION: Existing standards and practices for collecting, verifying, and using information as evidence are challenged by today’s network of volunteer actors, triangulated data flow between companies, governments, and civil society organizations, and the lifespan and mutability of digital data.
RIGHTS AND RESPONSIBILITIES: The rights of individuals and communities whose data are being collected by civil society are unclear. Conversely, the responsibilities of groups collecting individual and community data are undefined as well. The Ethics of Data in Civil Society (EoD) conference will provide a place for scholars, activists, policy makers, funders, and members of the private sector to collectively address shared questions that, until now, have been faced and dealt with in the silos of specific work such as journalism, crisis response, civic technology, health care, criminal justice and other spheres with vibrant civil society participants. The unique contribution of this forum will be to articulate core ethical principles that cut across domains and represent the ideals of civil society action. For example, medical researchers, criminal justice lawyers, environmental activists, journalists and voluntary technology organizations all face credibility challenges when social media are used. Civil society actors need to develop procedures for involving volunteers in this work in ways that respect the rights of the volunteers and the intended beneficiary populations, maintain the integrity of the data, respect the often commercial or government data ownership regimes, and still deliver benefits to a broad public. The EoD conference will
provide a place for actors from across these domains to develop shared principles for doing this. The EoD Conference is designed to inform and complement other forums for research and practical work on digital data and ethics by providing a focus on core principles and by bringing together multiple stakeholders. Our goal is to begin formulating principles of ethical digital data use in civil society that might stand the test of time and weather the pace of innovation, both in technology and in civil society organizing. The working goals of the conference are to: 1) Identify and strengthen a community of practice that includes activists, scholars, policymakers, funders, and corporate and government allies; 2) Work toward common language, knowledge, and idea exchange within this community of practice; and, 3) Begin formulating the core principles of ethical digital data use in civil society.
A working group drawn from professionals and volunteers in several domains of civil society (humanitarian aid, crisis response, medical research, health access, journalism, education technology, higher education, civic technology, and community organizing) has identified several shared issues about digital data. We’ve also recognized that the digital versions of these challenges are different from their “analog” counterparts in ways that require a new ethical calculus of private risk and public benefit. Specifically:
The nature of digital copies, storage capacity and duration, and scale/pace of transmission are all out of sync with existing ethical mechanisms.
Digital data often allow multiple public benefits to be produced so it raises questions of prioritizing or choosing among public benefits, not just weighing public benefits against private risks. We need ethical frames to balance multiple public benefits and multiple private risks.
Some of the risks generated by digital data are so far away from the original person that they might be considered public risks rather than private. For example, genomic data can identify not only the original person but also his/her distant relatives and descendants. This posits potential public benefits against potential public risks. This “distance” can occur over both time and “space” (distance from original person).
The sheer volume of digital data and its emergence as a new class of economic asset risks further exacerbating entrenched economic and social inequities.
New systems thinking is required for this data-rich environment. For example, what are the new partnership arrangements and business models that will be required to align incentives for ethical use of data in and for civil society?
The ubiquity of digital technology and the complexity of its inner workings raise ethical questions regarding the obligations of those who build these tools to those who will use them. A common set of ethical principles for ethical use of digital data for civil purposes must engage technologists and be useful to them. These practical challenges raise a set of questions shared across domains:
What are the unique values of civil society that shape its approach to ethical challenges raised by digital data?
How can civil society express these values when working with commercial or government data?
How will civil society develop ethical codes regarding digital data?
How do individuals and civil society learn about, transmit, follow and enforce these codes?
How should private digital assets be used for public benefit and what rights, privileges, and limits regarding their use are vital for a functioning civil society? These ethical considerations about digital data are indeed raising larger questions for how civil society operates and, eventually, structures itself in the digital age. We see

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