The Data Ethics Canvas is a guide/workshop resource with a series of 15 steps, each with questions to consider and answer that stimulate debate about how data and data subjects will be treated during a data project. Peter Wells, head of policy at the Open Data Institute, answers a few questions on what the Data Ethics Canvas is, who can use it, why, and where the idea for it came from.
Toni Sekinah: What is the data ethics canvas?
Peter Wells: It’s a practical advocacy tool able to help organisations and projects teams understand ethical decisions they might have to make and help them make those decisions.
TS: Who is using the Data Ethics Canvas?
PW: We are aware of multinational organisations using it, both businesses and NGOs. The Gates Foundation ispublicly using it in a lot of its work around the world. The national businesses are using in the UK. For example the Co-Operative Group is using it in itsdigital services. They’ve built it into all of their life cycles. And then local organisations like Waltham Forest council, they’ve built it into their service delivery models to help them understand and assess ethical issues.
TS: Why should they use it?
PW: They should use it because in the world of technology, there are many people who have built bad things, either accidentally or deliberately. Those bad things can harm people or our democracies. It can also harm the businesses, it harms their bottom lines. They want to actively reduce the harm they could cause and using tools like the Data Ethics Canvas early in their processes reduces their chance of getting things wrong.
TS: What has the reception to the Data Ethics Canvas been like?
PW: We’ve been pleasantly surprised at how big the take up has been. The way it keeps popping up in our social media feeds from all sorts of places is great. Surprisingly, we’ve seen businesses building the Data Ethics Canvas into their own professional services; people are selling workshops that use the Data Ethics Canvas. So they are using it as a tool to help other businesses, and that’s really nice to see because it has a huge impact.
TS: When was it created and when was it updated?
PW: We first published in August 2017. That was the first iteration. We did the second iteration summer last year and we are about to publish 3rd iteration in the next couple of months. In between there’s been lots of minor iterations we’ve been testing internally and working and prototyping.
TS: How do you get feedback for the updates?
PW: We went out to the organisations we knew were using it and asked what was working and what wasn’t. We observed people using it. We run our own workshop sessions, where we bring some people in and prototype it. And we get a lot of people contacting us and saying ‘you’ve forgotten x’ or ‘what about y?’ We listen to that, rank its product features and then say ‘what do we build in this time round?’
TS: What has been a useful piece of feedback?
PW: One thing we got slightly wrong at first is we didn’t have human rights quite prominent enough. Some people were missing that so we changed the prominence of those things to make sure people weren’t only thinking of privacy but were thinking broader about different data issues.
TS: Where did the idea come from and how was it conceived?
PW: It was two of my friends who aren’t here anymore, Ellen Broad and Amanda Smith, who led on it with me helping. Originally we were going to do a white paper on ethics. As we were doing that we found that lots of other people were doing exactly the same and actually the real need wasn’t for more things saying what could go wrong, but for a tool to help people stop things going wrong.
TS: What is your ultimate aim with the Data Ethics Canvas?
PW: What we are trying to do is see how more organisations can build it into their general project practices and just make ethics part of the way they deliver projects. It doesn’t even need for ours to be canvas they use but people are starting to build those questions into this part of their project process, and then it just becomes normal. It just becomes the way we do things, rather than an add on to the way we do things. That is gradually what we are trying to achieve.