Five ways charities need to assess the ethical impact of digital

Ahead of their webinar next week, Tracey Gyateng and Christine Henry, DataKind UK, lay out the top five tips for ethical charity digital projects.

Guest Writer | 1st May 19

This article was written by Tracey Gyateng and Christine Henry, DataKind UK. Tracey Gyateng is Data Science Manager at DataKind UK and works with social change organisations to use data (both qualitative and quantitative) for decision making. Christine Henry PhD is a Data and AI Ethics Consultant and Data Product Manager, and is volunteer ethics committee lead at DataKind UK.

DataKind UK and  AMRC are holding a free webinar on the 8th May to discuss how we developed an ethical framework for AMRC members when developing DDT products and services. Join us!


Data, Digital and Technology (DDT) continues to rapidly transform the ways in which business, government and civil society operate. There is no doubt that it has brought many benefits –  it’s harder to get lost when you have a mobile device with access to Google Maps! But there has been increasing recognition that the consequences of applying DDT without proper review can lead to harm, entrenching or exacerbating existing societal biases.

This has led to an explosion of codes of conducts and principles on how to develop ethical tech products and services. Though this is a good sign that the tech industry has recognised the importance of ethics, this proliferation has created a bewildering landscape for charities wishing to understand the key considerations needed for digital ethics.

So how can you navigate the maze? Here are our five top tips, based on our work with the Association of Medical Research Charities (AMRC) to help their members to discover which ethical principles are relevant to them and how to ask questions of tech partners to ensure they are onboard.

1. Understand your environment

So we want to build an ethical digital product or service. How we get there requires us to understand the context in which we operate, so we can tailor our principles to that context. For example, for AMRC members, the context is data and digital health research, by charities and their partners, in the UK. It’s less catchy than just saying ‘digital health’ but it provides a useful frame to explore where other ethical work has been done and what might be different to this particular context. What is the context that you are working in?

2. Don’t reinvent the wheel

AMRC sought to assess what was out there already – rather than simply add to the ever expanding DDT ethics field. In the absence of a perfect fit to the specific context, we aimed to signpost to the most relevant high-level principles. This meant acknowledging what was distinctive, and also common about their context, identifying relevant principles, and connecting them to best practice and existing requirements. Can you use an existing framework?

3. Plan your route

With a clear understanding of our environment, we identified the relevant ethical principles for AMRC members through undertaking a review of literature, speaking with experts working in the field of ethics and AI and speaking with AMRC members who have the deep expertise in the fields they work with and quickly. The field of digital ethics is still evolving and we found people were willing to discuss and share their work. One key finding is that more guidance is needed to help all organisations really embed ethics into practice. Who should you involve?

4. Check you’re heading in the right direction

Identifying key ethical principles is largely a subjective exercise – there is no objective truth. Your background and life experience will influence the method you use and the conclusions you reach – so don’t do this by yourself! To check that we were heading in the right direction, we held a consensus-building workshop with AMRC members to validate the set of principles. Do your principles express your values? Do they resonate with your service users, staff, partners, etc.?

5. Press start on your ethical principles

Creating a set of ethics principles is just the starting point. It needs to be “operationalised”. We sought to kick-start that process by suggesting questions that charities can ask potential tech partners. But it doesn’t stop there. Decisions must be made in the face of uncertain or unknown elements, and all of this is a living process. There will be more work to do as the project (inevitably) shifts between conception and delivery, as societal ethical norms change, and as the political and tech landscape shift the balance between risk and benefits. How will you implement your ethical principles and monitor the consequences of your DDT products and services?


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