How data-savvy cities can tackle growing ethical considerations August 2, 2023

How data-savvy cities can tackle growing ethical considerations

August 2, 2023

As cities grow increasingly sophisticated in their use of data, they’re also finding new approaches to manage the associated ethical considerations.

In London and Amsterdam, that’s included hiring a dedicated data ethicist, who city staff can turn to for guidance. But that's not the only way to ensure that ethical considerations are roundly considered.

To learn more about how cities are grappling with data ethics, Bloomberg Cities spoke with one of the new local government data ethicists, as well as other experts in the field. Here are four takeaways from those conversations.

Data ethicists can drive a considered approach across city hall.

Technology for collecting, combining, and analyzing data is moving quickly, putting cities in a good position to use data to innovate in how they solve problems. However, it also places a responsibility on them to do so in a manner that does not undermine public trust. 

To help local governments deal with these issues, the London Office of Technology and Innovation, or LOTI, has a set of recommendations for data ethics capabilities in local government. One of those recommendations—for cities that are mature in their work in this area—is to hire a dedicated data ethicist.

LOTI exists to support dozens of local boroughs across London in their collective efforts to tackle big challenges. As part of that mission, LOTI hired Sam Nutt to serve as a data ethicist that local leaders can call on. The move reflected the reality that most local councils don’t have the capacity to have their own data ethicist on staff and it put LOTI in a position to experiment, learn, and share out lessons learned from the approach.

Nutt’s role provides a potential framework other cities looking to hire data ethicists can build on. His position is based on job specifications for data ethicists published by the UK government. He says his work falls into three general areas. First, he helps local councils work through ethical questions surrounding individual data projects. Second, he helps them develop more high-level policies, such as the Borough of Camden’s Data Charter. And third, he provides guidance on how to engage staff, residents, and stakeholders around the implications of using technology, including research on what’s new in the field. 

As an example of the kinds of ethical issues that he consults on, Nutt cites repairs in publicly subsidized housing. Local leaders are interested in using algorithms to help them prioritize use of scarce maintenance resources. But doing so raises questions about what criteria should be used to bump one resident’s needs above another’s. 

“If you prioritize, for example, the likelihood of a resident making a complaint, you may be baking in an existing social inequality, because some communities do not feel as empowered to make complaints as others,” Nutt says. “So it’s thinking through what the ethical considerations might be in terms of choices of data and how you use it, and giving advice to prevent potential biases from creeping in.” 

Hiring ethicists isn’t the only approach.

Nutt acknowledges that most cities are too resource constrained to hire a staff data ethicist. What matters most, he says, is that local governments create mechanisms for ensuring that ethical considerations of their choices with data and technology are considered. “The solution will never be that everyone has to hire a data ethicist,” Nutt says. “The solution is really to build ethics into your default ways of working with data.”

Stefaan Verhulst agrees. “The question for government is: Is ethics a position? A function? Or an institutional responsibility?” says Verhulst, Co-Founder of The GovLab and Director of its Data Program. The key is “to figure out how we institutionalize this in a meaningful way so that we can always check the pulse and get rapid input with regard to the social license for doing certain kinds of things.”

Data ethics is everyone’s responsibility. 

As the data capabilities of local governments grow, it’s also important to empower all individuals working in government to understand ethical considerations within the work they’re doing, and to have clear guidelines and codes of conduct they can follow. LOTI’s data ethics recommendations note that hiring a data ethicist should not be an organization’s first step, in part because “it risks delegating ethics to a single individual when it should be in the domain of anyone using or managing data.”

Training staff is a big part of the equation. “It’s about making the culture of government sensitive to these issues,” Verhulst says, so “that people are aware.”

Nutt adds that it’s critical for public officials to see themselves, in some ways, as ethicists. “You are making values-based decisions every day when it comes to your work about what you think are the right and wrong things to do,” Nutt says. Data ethics “is really just about making people conscious of those things and giving them tools to work with.”

Engage the community around ethical concerns.

There’s also a case to be made that data ethics be a shared responsibility among many. 

Amy Edwards Holmes, Executive Director of the Bloomberg Center for Government Excellence at Johns Hopkins University, says that in many cities, data ethics falls under bigger questions around data governance, which generally is the purview of a broad group of people representing a variety of agencies and viewpoints. 

Some models expand even further to bring residents and other stakeholders into the conversation. In the London Borough of Brent, LOTI worked with the local council to create a Data Ethics Board made up of experts from in and out of local government to provide advice on local projects. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the GovLab led a citizen’s assembly in New York City to advise on the ways the city used data to monitor compliance with social distancing and other public health initiatives.

The key is staying tuned into the values of your community. “You need to be engaging with representatives of your community around the subject [of ethics] and bringing them to the table,” Holmes says. “That complete view, from all parties, is really important to make sure you are sticking to those values in your society and community.”