Digital Civil Society Lab

Ethics of Data


Digital data – from remote sensors, research, communications tools, donated human tissue and other sources – are becoming a key resource for social change in a number of settings. Using data well and ethically requires new skills, new thinking, and new codes of practice.  

Policy makers, international corporations, civil and consumer rights groups, and associations focused on privacy issues are engaged in debate about the use of digital data. Most of these discussions position national security against privacy or economic and technological innovation against personal concerns. And while nonprofits are often the hosts of such discussions, rarely do these investigations consider the ways that networked digital data are changing the nonprofits themselves. This conference offered a first – a discussion of the ethical choices that nonprofits, funders, and associations face in using digital data for social good. By deliberating mixing practitioners with scholars, funders and policymakers this convening aimed to offer new ways of understanding the tensions and ethical challenges civil society faces in using digital data. These range from the systemic (how does donor intent relate to digital donations?) to the immediate and life-threatening (what obligations do volunteers tagging tweets have in relation to standard humanitarian practices?) 

Recognizing that “data flatten terrain,” we were particularly interested in crosscutting lessons and approaches. We considered ethical challenges and emerging codes of practice in humanitarian work, journalism, medical research, digital humanities, civic technology and other domains to surface common areas of inquiry and potential shared practices. We also are interested in ethical questions along the entire “chain of data use” including collection, coding, storage, access, sharing, analysis, and use.  

Practical workshops on technology design, principles of behavior and code mapping woved together overr the two days, informing proposals for further action at the conclusion of the conference. Plenary and keynote presentations highlighted research, policy proposals, and practical approaches by organizations to address specific ethical challenges.

Research Questions

  • What are the shared systemic issues, and the mission and time-critical ethical challenges, for civil society organizations in a digital age?
  • How do we consider these challenges and the various approaches to them along the complete life cycle of digital data – gathering, storing, analyzing, sharing, preservation?
  • How do we address the opportunities and limitations of various approaches to adopting ethical behaviors, from markets to regulations, coercion to moral suasion?
  • Who is responsible for making and enforcing certain practices and how well do codes of practice work in a digital age? 
  • How can we build agreement on core principles that cut across domains and the social sector?


The Digital Civil Society Lab hosted an invited group of practitioners, scholars, policymakers, and funders on the ethics of digital data in civil society. The conference was held at Stanford University on September 15-16, 2014, convened by the Digital Civil Society Lab in collaboration with the Columbia University School of Journalism Brown Institute and the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative