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Data science team explores ethical issues



A partnership of government organisations is looking into ethics and for ways to increase the relevant skills in the public sector

A government team is exploring the ethical issues around data science as part of its effort to develop public sector capabilities in the field.

Jane Naylor, senior principal methodologist at the Office of National Statistics (ONS), highlighted the work in a presentation on data science at last week’s Central Government Business and Technology Conference, staged by Whitehall Media.

She said it one of four streams under the Government Data Science Partnership, which was set up at the turn of the year and comprises a number of organisations including the ONS and the Government Digital Service (GDS) and the Government Office for Science.

Naylor emphasised the importance of ethical issues in talking about one of the early projects, which is collecting tweets with GPS locators attached to see if they can provide data on residence and mobility around cities. This could be used in dealing with issues around the movement of people in specific areas, but it raises questions about a possible invasion of privacy.

Need for frameworks

“We recognise this can raise issues around privacy and ethics, and there is a need to work on ethical frameworks,” Naylor said.

“We want to develop guidance for projects to work in an ethical way,” she added. “We see it as a dynamic thing, and hope to run some public research later this year to explore attitudes.”

The other workstreams involve proving concepts and identifying areas in which data science could support government, identifying data gaps and practical barriers, and bringing more data scientists into government.

Naylor said that building the capability would involve encouraging analysts already working in the public sector to take their skills to a higher level.  

“We’ve recognised that many analysts in government are capable of doing the work, but don’t have the time or training,” she said.


In response, the partnership has set up a community of interest group to explore possible solutions, and an accelerator programme for analysts from across government. This involves working with the GDS to identify projects they can take back to their departments and agencies for development.

“We recognise this as a growing profession and want to encourage more analysts across professions to take on data science skills,” Naylor said.

She also emphasised that data science has a “huge potential for the way we develop policy and take our options forward”.

Image from GOV.UK, Open Government Licence v3.0




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