How legal and ethical frameworks influence public sector data professionals in The Netherlands
There have been intense debates among the general public and people involved in data science about the right way to deal with vast volumes of data using modern tools and techniques to find unseen patterns and derive meaningful information. Scandals about the misuse of data and abusive practices around data have led to a slew of new ethical and legal frameworks which attempt to govern data science practices. Yet there is little available research on how these legal and ethical frameworks are implemented in practice. Ben Wagner, assistant professor in the governance of socio-legal systems, wanted to change this. He wrote a paper about it together with two colleagues from Utrecht University, Maranke Wieringa and Isabelle Fest.
Wagner: “Recent years have seen a massive growth in ethical and legal frameworks to govern data science practices. This paper looks at two cases in The Netherlands: public sector data professionals at municipalities and the Dutch Police. The paper concludes that there is a wide gap between legal and ethical governance rules and the everyday practices. For example, we encountered practitioners who wanted to be more ethical in how they manage and process data, but didn’t know how to do so in practice. In consequence, legal and ethical frameworks are integrated implicitly, subtly influencing decision-making. While this is good in terms of getting new values considered as part of public sector decision-making, its highly problematic in terms of reliability and accountability, as you can’t rely on these types of implicit considerations systematically. In response to these problematic situations, public sector institutions tend to create specialised units with specialised expertise in data protection or ethics, however based on our research this is the wrong approach. Instead, these situations are so common for public sector data professionals there is a need to mainstream literacy, rather than focus on specialisation.”