Last year Ethical Intelligence had the opportunity to work with the Data for Children Collaborative with UNICEF1 in creating an Ethical Assessment that would help guide the future research projects of the Collaborative. The Ethical Assessment is composed of a Compass, Roadmap and Highway Code. The Compass is the guiding ethical charter that embodies the Collaborative’s mission, the Roadmap is the ethical protocol each research project must follow, and the Highway Code is the resource document that explains the reasoning behind the protocol as well as provides further information when necessary.
I had the pleasure of sitting down with Alex Hutchison, Director of the Collaborative, and Alessandra Fassio, Programme Administrator and EI Expert on the original project, to discuss both the journey of creating the Ethical Assessment as well as now implementing it over the past year of its existence.
First of all, thank you both for joining me today. I’m excited to hear about the past year of working with the Ethical Assessment on live projects! Let’s start off with a bigger question - what is the importance of having the Ethical Assessment both within the context of the Collaborative and beyond?
Hutchison: Our work at the Collaborative deals with two real pressure points; data with all its complexities, assets and ripples effects, and children as they are a vulnerable group often without say of what is done to them. The combination of these two points coming together meant we needed a clear and transparent protocol that everyone could refer back to. It is important for all organisations to have some kind of ethical assessment, but it was more pressing of an issue for us to have something because of the nature of our work.
Fassio: We wanted to create something practical without having to rely on previous charters and protocols of other organisations. It was important to have something freestanding that would reflect the mission of the Collaborative, not just a basic solution out of the back of the box. By having the Ethical Assessment, we have something very practical that we can use and engage with our project teams on, which is essential to the work we do here.
It’s very clear how important having this Ethical Assessment was for the Collaborative! Generally, however, ethics can be seen as a blocker in a lot of technological contexts. Did you face any hesitation when first setting out on the project?
Hutchison: Not at all. I knew we needed something, and me not being from an extensive background in ethics or morality was refreshing because I could objectively push the project forward without getting tangled up in nuances. There weren’t many frameworks to use as examples, so my main objective was to get the vision we had for the Collaborative out into the world.
Fassio: Philosophy is notorious for getting stuck in the ivory tower, so having to create something applicable was an interesting challenge. We could have spent months on moral theories, but that would have missed the point, or at best ended in merely virtue signalling.
The Ethical Assessment came out of a strong understanding of ethical theories, how has it been now adopting it in your everyday processes, especially since you work mainly with data scientists?
Fassio: The Assessment was designed to be a living document, which basically means that it is not just a one form and done. It’s meant to carry through all the different stages of the project lifecycle, which saves it from being a tick box and embeds ethics into the project itself. Now, it’s a valuable asset because it creates constant reflection on that fact that children must be the top stakeholder. It is an important reminder that your priorities and objectives can change as a project develops, so there is a need to continuously check back in.
Hutchison: We see different reactions to the Assessment. Some people readily accept it and are happy that there is a safeguard. But we also see people saying that as long as they use a safe dataset, there aren’t problems. The fact that the Assessment illustrates that ethics is not just about the safety of the dataset, that it’s more foundational than that, is really important for our projects.
Looking now specifically at a recent project the Collaborative undertook concerning HIV and children, what role did the Ethical Assessment play?
Fassio: HIV is a really broad topic, so having the Assessment actually helped us refine what the research question actually was. Being able to look at the bigger ethical picture helped us take a step back and understand what we really wanted and were able to achieve.
Hutchison: This was a good exemplar of what happens when you have people that are subject matter expertise and come to the project with a design already in mind. HIV is the ideal situation for someone to have a strong opinion, which makes it all the more important to be able to use the Ethical Assessment to lift out of that mindset, critically examine the issues, and ask the right questions.
It sounds like the Ethical Assessment was a strong asset in the HIV project and beyond. How have you been measuring its success overall, since ethics can initially often seem intangible?
Hutchison: We accept that sometimes it may feel like just another form to fill out, but we’ve seen how it has changed programme and project design for the better and so recognise its importance and success. I have no hesitations from stopping a project all together if we reach a point in the Ethical Assessment that signals we are in the red.
Fassio: The fact that it gets people talking about the ethical issues in the first place is a success. It shows that we are asking the right questions, that the people working on these sensitive subjects have taken a step back and thought everything through. It helps us analyse how we may need to adjust a project’s vision along the way so that it remains productive and ethically sound.
As you look towards the future of the Collaborative and the role of the Ethical Assessment in your projects, what lessons have you learned over the past year that you want to carry forward?
Hutchison: We’ve learned the importance of being able to build trust in what the Assessment is. By being able to clearly explain who was involved in the making of it, and communicate transparently to the various stakeholders, we are able to build trust and respect in the judgements resulting from the Assessment. Currently we track comments and feedback very closely, and we hope that as time progresses to be able to continue reviewing and sharpening the process. Each project requires a different approach to the Assessment, and each new approach teaches us something further in terms of the importance of awareness and trust. We also hope to increase the messaging around the Assessment so that other organisations can recognise the importance of having one and begin developing their own. In my opinion, the important question that will lead influence how we move forward is how do we make this part of common practice? This is about educating and training and awareness.
Fassio: There’s no one right way of doing it. We’ve had to learn that there isn’t a consistent way of introducing the Assessment, as gauging the personalities and dynamics of the teams will dictate how the Assessment is adopted into the process. Sometimes it’s the whole team that takes responsibility, sometimes it’s the PI. The most important thing is that it is incorporated in a productive and impactful way. Everyone does philosophy in their everyday life, it’s giving people the confidence to transfer it to the professional setting that’s so valuable. People can contribute to the conversation no matter what their background is, sometimes all they need is a little hand holding and guidance.
To round out this interview, if you could summarise in your own opinion, what is the benefit to having the Assessment?
Hutchison: Credibility. It gives the Collaborative and the projects we do here undeniable credibility.
Fassio: The fact that it allows us to be transparent. We are not afraid to stop a project if we see it is heading in an ethically questionable direction.
You can also find them on Twitter @dataforchildren or Linkedin.
(1) The Data for Children Collaborative with UNICEF is a joint partnership between UNICEF, the Scottish Government and the University of Edinburgh hosted by The Data Lab. The goal of the Collaborative is to address existing problems for children, a highly sensitive and vulnerable group, by using innovative data science techniques.