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Balancing data innovation and ethics in policing


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Avon and Somerset Police has developed a data strategy strengthened by a robust ethical framework, writes Kate Hemstock, principal consultant data and decisions at Agilisys (AD&D)

Police forces hold a wealth of data that continues to increase in volume and complexity as they work more closely with other public sector agencies, creating tremendous potential for innovation in the cause of keeping the public safe.

But much of this data is highly sensitive and there are questions about the ethics of how the data is used. There is a need for a balance between innovation, more creative data sharing and compliance with ethical demands around privacy, security, not doing harm to the public and the limits of police powers.

It demands due diligence and a mindset focused on asking ‘Should we?’ not ‘Could we?’ in exploiting data.

Avon and Somerset Police has been among the leaders in finding the balance, as its head of performance and insight, Jon Dowey, explained to the recent UKAuthority AI & Data4Good conference. This has involved working closely with Agilsys in the development of its data strategy and ethical framework.

Democratising insight

“We’ve gone big on democratising insight at all levels,” he said. “We see it as a decision support system down to frontline officer level. We want to ensure officers and staff are connected to the data that means most to them.

“But we want to do ethics and compliance safely and securely. We strive for a ‘compliance by design’ approach in building data products, assessing the data impact with the information governance (IG) team built into the design process and hard coded into workflow. We’ve developed a positive relationship with IG leads, with a good two-way understanding on what each area needs to achieve.”

The force has guard rails for compliance and ethics that include an auditable analytics tool with multiple oversight mechanisms, an ethics committee to set standards that are then conveyed through the corporate communications team, clear and robust product development guidelines, and the application of frameworks such as ALGOCARE (advisory, lawful, granularity, ownership, challengeable, accuracy, responsible, explainable), which is approved by the National Police Chiefs Council.

“It’s a collection of key areas that we need to ask ourselves about internally when working with personal information and doing algorithmic work,” Dowey said of the latter.

The force also applies the UK government’s Data Ethics Framework, for which he emphasised the importance of its constant evolution and focus on community outcomes.

Impact and scrutiny

A key step is that every time Avon and Somerset Police develops a new product using personal information it is subject to a data protection impact assessment, and examined by a scrutiny panel to ensure it is within the ethical guard rails.

Dowey said all this is part of the underlying aim of the force’s approach in using data to produce better outcomes in areas such as risk management, demand management and a range of processes. He cited the ability to produce better vulnerability referrals to other agencies as one of the positive use cases, saying it has proved possible to do this while complying with data protection regulations and maintaining strong ethical standards.

This has become more challenging with the increase in multi-agency data sharing but has also a produced a bigger pay-off.

There is a strong example in the force’s work with local authorities in bringing together more than 30 datasets on individuals, many of them children, as part of the agenda to support troubled families. It has drawn on the force’s Data Accelerator Programme, which involves enhancing the flow of data between the councils, using legal gateways – such as the Care Act, Children (Leaving Care) Act and Crime and Disorder Act – and the police and a multi-agency analytics hub through which they all employ a common approach to IG.

It produces benefits in a better identification of need, information for practitioners, evaluation of what works, understanding how problems develop and understanding how services operate.

Hard coded and holistic

“It’s all hard coded into governance,” Dowey said. “It’s a holistic strategy that covers the whole data lifecycle, and engagement with Agilisys has helped us do a lot more in the world.”

This reflects an ongoing priority of Agilisys. When we began to work with Avon and Somerset Police we initially focused on the data strategy, but before it was applied ensured there were strong IG and data ethics arrangements in place.

A critical element of this was in assessing the appetite for data related risk within the force, particularly its chief officer group, and engaging with over 60 stakeholders including senior and frontline officers and staff to build a picture of the organisation’s data culture.

Agilisys has developed a data ethics framework to support its clients in developing their approaches, absorbing the best elements of existing frameworks such as ALGOCARE and adding a practical approach for their applications within a data strategy. This places a strong emphasis on the ‘Should we?’, not ‘Could we?’, the need to work on transparency through communications channels, and to ensure there is a diverse range of perspectives within an organisation’s data ethics committee.

Scope for evolution

It is also important to recognise that a framework needs the scope to change over time, reflecting the constant evolution of technology and the use of data. This takes an effort to keep up with the changes and thinking about the implications for IG and ethics.

At the heart of all this, we advocate an approach that is focused on outcomes, both for the community that an organisation serves and the individuals who are affected by its use of data. If an organisation can be really clear about those outcomes it will be in a better position to identify and manage any ethical risks.

This can give organisations the confidence to push boundaries, innovate, get the maximum value from the data and, most importantly, provide positive outcomes for the public.

If you are dealing with the complexities of ethical insights and data sharing, get in touch with Agilisys' data and decisions unit (AD&D). We use decision intelligence (DI) tools to enable organisations in healthcare, social care and police and justice to transform citizens' outcomes using insights and decision tools to address the public sector's thorniest challenges. To find out more visit the Agilisys website.

You can view the presentation by Kate Hemstock and Jon Dowey at AI & Data4Good 2022 below:  

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