Doing Good Data Science : Ethics of Data Science

The hard thing about being an ethical data scientist isn’t understanding ethics. It’s the junction between ethical ideas and practice. It’s doing good data science. There has been a lot of healthy discussion about data ethics lately. We want to be clear: that discussion is good, and necessary. But it’s also not the biggest problem we face. We already have good standards for data ethics. The ACM’s code of ethics, which dates back to 1993, and is currently being updated, is clear, concise, and surprisingly forward-thinking; 25 years later, it’s a great start for anyone thinking about ethics. The American Statistical Association has a good set of ethical guidelines for working with data. So, we’re not working in a vacuum. And we believe that most people want to be fair. Data scientists and software developers don’t want to harm the people using their products.

There are exceptions, of course; we call them criminals and con artists. Defining “fairness” is difficult, and perhaps impossible, given the many crosscutting layers of “fairness” that we might be concerned with. But we don’t have to solve that problem in advance, and it’s not going to be solved in a simple statement of ethical principles, anyway. The problem we face is different: how do we put ethical principles into practice? We’re not talking about an abstract commitment to being fair. Ethical principles are worse than useless if we don’t allow them to change our practice, if they don’t have any effect on what we do day-to-day. For data scientists, whether you’re doing classical data analysis or leading-edge AI, that’s a big challenge.

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