Optimism through Robust Governance: Growing Digital Ethics in Practice

Ollie Buckley is Executive Director of the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation (CDEI), an independent UK advisory body launched in 2018 to advise on the governance of AI and data-driven technologies. Immediately prior to this, Ollie led the Digital Charter team in the UK government’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), where he was responsible for policy development on the societal impacts of the internet and new technology.

Optimism through Robust Governance: Growing Digital Ethics in Practice

One of the key challenges with developing appropriate governance mechanisms for data-driven technologies is the sheer ubiquity of how these technologies permeate every aspects of our lives & work. Multi-stakeholder approaches have been used in the past to develop governance approaches for tricky ethical issues, but often these examples are limited in the scope of their application. Ollie used the example of how governance for the application of stem cells in fertility research in the UK was developed through dialogue between the scientific community, faith groups, medical practitioners, patients, and others. While the scale of that challenge was large, developing governance for data-driven technologies is more akin to developing the overall governance for all of medicine, not just one small piece. The scope of the challenge is vast and the appropriate governance mechanisms will necessarily take time to evolve.

As prior guests on the podcast have noted, governance happens at many levels: at the data model, organization, and at the regulatory level, to name a few examples. Ollie views the role of the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation as a sort of ladder between the layers: seeking out the places where governance already exists and providing the essential links that allow all the elements of governance to come together in one robust system so that everyone from a CEO to a technologist to a citizen-consumer knows what the expectations are and how to ensure they are met. Two examples of how  the CDEI is developing these essential links are its AI Barometer analysing the risks & opportunities for data-driven technologies across five sectors, and a recent report proposing a new framework for trustworthy data sharing across public-sector services.

Ollie ended on an optimistic note: those of us who are steeped in the challenges of digital ethics may be deluged by the many negative stories we see on a daily basis, or even by the fragmented nature of so many seemingly disparate frameworks and models for regulating the space. The problems can seem too vast to contemplate. But one positive takeaway is that public discourse on the subject is maturing. The importance of developing robust digital ethics mechanism is becoming a more recognized aspect of our day-to-day lives, and the digitization of formerly analogue systems and processes affords us another opportunity to recognize the bias inherent in these systems. It’s only by recognizing the challenges we face with societal fairness that we can start to redress those, and automation gives us an opportunity to put right some harms that have already been in existence for a long time. Creating a better future is something we can all look forward to.

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