Trust in data is about more than ethics – Deborah Yates

6 Jan 2022 16:55 | Sue Russell (Administrator)

Trust in data is about more than ethics – Deborah Yates

There was a time when almost every one of us would react to a new set of terms and conditions – be they from a software supplier or a service provider – by scrolling through to the end and clicking ‘agree’. We wanted to get at the goodies and didn’t think much about where our data would end up or how our actions would be tracked. 

But in the post-Cambridge Analytica period, we are a little more circumspect. Many still opt for the scroll and click approach for brands that we trust, but even then we are far more likely to then go in and edit our data preferences. When it comes to apps, surveys and sign-ups from brands we don’t know then we may be willing to forgo any alleged benefits to retain our data. 

In other words, the issue of trust in data has become a mainstream issue, even though many of those making such decisions may not realise that trust in data, and trust in the organisations collecting and using data, is an issue they are interacting with. They may cite ‘brand trust’ or ‘security’, but these are illustrations of trust in data and why it is now important for all businesses. Organisations should take it as read that those who interact with them have the right to ask how and why data is collected, how it is used and who has access to it. After all, these are the people who will deem your company trustworthy, or not. 

We cannot take trust as a given, it is very much part of a relationship that customers or business partners give to a brand or business once it has earned it – and the definition of ‘earning it’ is nuanced and context dependent. That may be through experience or reputation, but either of those can be a gateway to a loss of trust as well. 

Of course, demonstrating ethical values plays a large role in building trust. This can both paint a picture of how an organisation operates and speak to the values of those who interact with it. There is a reason that many organisations talk about their approach to staff welfare, the environment, animal testing or their position on fair wages for suppliers. 

These issues may speak to the value base of customers, but it shows something wider. It establishes a brand as considered, thoughtful and trustworthy. It imparts a moral compass and hopefully reflects values across the board. 

Ethical considerations in the way an organisation collects, uses and shares data is increasingly on the agenda - both from a social and economic perspective. The rise of data ethics - defined as a distinct and recognised form of ethics that considers the impact of data and data practices on people, society and the environment - as a recognised discipline is a testament to this.

However, demonstrating ethical collection and use of data is just one element of trustworthy data stewardship. Gaining trust requires organisations to go above and beyond good data governance practices. They will need to demonstrate trustworthiness in privacy and security, ethics and transparency, engagement and accountability, as well as equity and fairness. Addressing each of these areas can help to increase confidence in data, as well as trust in the businesses or organisations that handle it. In doing so, those addressing each area shift from the theoretical to the practical. After all, it is easy for organisations to make claims about any element of their ethics or data practices, it is quite another to visibly demonstrate that these ethics are integrated and embedded into every day business. Claiming ethical practicess will certainly win attention in the short-term, but failing to deliver on those can actually be more damaging to an organisation than failing to set such guidelines. 

The Open Data Institute has long been working in the field of trustworthy data and data practices, with a team of experts who can help organisations to assess, build and demonstrate how they create and then embed ethical data practices that can be acted upon and upheld. 

Please do get in touch if you would like to learn more about what the ODI can do to help your organisation demonstrate trustworthiness with data, or improve confidence in collection, use and sharing of data. We can work with you to develop your approach, or work with you to build on  existing practices you may already have in place. We can also provide training for you or your staff.

Deborah Yates, Programme Lead, Data Assurance, the Open Data Institute

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