Ethics of Data Conference

September 15th, 2015

Stanford University 326 Galvez St, CA



Registration is by invitation only


Civil society is where we act as private citizens on behalf of a greater public. It includes our actions as voters and organizers as well as volunteers, donors, and often providers of social, cultural or environmental programming and services. Digital data and networks are changing civil society as rapidly and profoundly as they are business and government. Since much of civil society depends on a unique set of relationships between private actors and public benefits, it faces its own challenges of articulating core principles for the ethical use of digital data and associated tools (networks, algorithms, storage) in pursuit of its missions.

The Ethics of Data in Civil Society (EoD) conference will provide a place for scholars, activists, policy makers and funders to collectively address shared questions that, until now, have been faced and dealt with in the silos of specific work such as journalism, crisis response, civic technology, health care, criminal justice and other spheres with vibrant civil society participants.

These questions include:

  1. What are the unique values of civil society that should shape its approach to ethical challenges raised by digital data?
  2. Should civil society handle digital data differently than businesses or governments?
  3. How should civil society transmit, employ and enforce its ethical codes regarding digital data? How do individuals acting within civil society learn about, express, or follow these codes?
  4. How should private digital assets be used for public benefit and what rights, privileges, and limits should be put in place regarding their use?

From our planning work, which has included discussions across many domains and with varied stakeholders in civil society, the most frequent ethical challenges regarding digital data are:

  • Ownership of data
  • Privacy of data
  • Anonymization
  • Re-identification of personal information
  • Do data generated in a commercial context have different use rights than data generated in a nonprofit/civil society context
  • Involvement of volunteers/amateurs/general public in generating and deploying digital data of use in civil society (volunteer data scientists, voluntary social media activists)
  • Ubiquity of algorithms and digital data streams engage non-experts, raising ethical challenges for those who create the originating tools or code
  • Technologists, legal, medical, and criminal justice systems all have different ethical structures/standards yet are increasingly working on same projects

Similarly, digital data versions of these ethical challenges are different from their “analog” counterparts in certain ways that require a new ethical calculus of private risk and public benefit. Specifically:

  1. The nature of digital copies, storage capacity and duration, and scale/pace of transmission are all out of sync with existing ethical mechanisms.
  2. Digital data often allow multiple public benefits to be produced so it raises questions of prioritizing or choosing among public benefits, not just weighing public benefits against private risks. We need ethical frames to balance multiple public benefits and multiple private risks.
  3. Some of the risks generated by digital data are so far away from the original person that they might be considered public risks rather than private. For example, genomic data can identify not only the original person but also his/her distant relatives and descendants. This posits potential public benefits against potential public risks. This “distance” can occur over both time and “space” (distance from original person).
  4. The ubiquity of digital technology and the complexity of its inner workings raise ethical questions regarding the obligations of those who build these tools to those who will use them. A common set of ethical principles for ethical use of digital data for civil purposes must engage technologists and be useful to them.

The EoD Conference is designed to inform and complement other forums for research and practical work on digital data and ethics by providing a focus on core principles and by bringing together multiple stakeholders.

The unique contribution of this forum will be to articulate core ethical principles that cut across domains and represent the ideals of civil society action. For example, medical researchers, criminal justice lawyers, environmental activists, journalists and voluntary technology organizations all face credibility challenges when social media are used. Civil society actors need to develop procedures for involving volunteers in this work in ways that respect the rights of the volunteers and the intended beneficiary populations, maintain the integrity of the data, respect the often commercial or government data ownership regimes, and still deliver benefits to a broad public. The EoD conference will provide a place for actors from across these domains to develop shared principles for doing this.

Our goal is to articulate core principles of ethical digital data use in civil society that can stand the test of time and weather the pace of innovation, both in technology and in civil society organizing.

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Stanford University

Monday, September 15 – Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Frances C. Arrillaga Alumni Center, McCaw Hall (view directions & map)
326 Galvez St.
Stanford, CA


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Ethics of Data: A Provocation Piece