Questions On The Ethical Use Of Data During A Humaitarian Crisis

Every day we hear of more cases of people infected with the COVID-19 virus. The data is accumulated on a real-time basis and made available to the public. This sheds questions as to the collection, use, store, and dissemination of data in light of values and ethical considerations.  How can information technology tools be developed, implemented and evaluated in ways that are attentive to values and ethics?

A news article appeared where the health officials in British Columbia are not making public the specific communities where the COVID-19 outbreaks are recorded. This move has not been popular with many of the province’s residents who express concern that they are not getting detailed information similar to what is available in other provinces. The provincial health officer defended the approach arguing that it didn’t matter because they want people everywhere in B.C. to be taking precautions.

The availability of information technology tools has increased expectations on the availability of data and information to the general public. The adoption of new tools is leading changes in how the humanitarian effort is delivered by increasing effectiveness and efficiency. The urgency of a crisis may speed up the deployment of tools that collect, use, store, and disseminate digital data. This raises the point that the roll out of these tools be attentive to ethical questions during their design, development, and deployment.

Some of the values and ethics that need to be framed relate to accuracy, protecting privacy, security, responding to inequality, respecting individuals and their communities, and protecting relationships. Information technology tools enable the collection of vast quantities of data which can include sensitive demographically identifiable information whose availability can cause harm to individuals and communities.

Allister Smith and colleagues from McGill University recently published a framework to ensure that values and ethics are included in the roll out of information technology tools.

They describe a development process where “at the intersection of ethics in (information technology) and humanitarian innovation, the framework incorporates value sensitive design in relation to humanitarian principles and other core ethical commitments of aid organizations.” A primary motivation for the development of value sensitive design was the “increasing impact and visibility that computer technologies have had on human lives. Technology may support/enhance and/or undermine/corrupt human values.”

Here are some key considerations:

  1. Humanitarian principles and ethical commitments. The following considerations for upholding humanitarian principles have been identified in regard to big data-driven crisis analytics:
  • Humanity – data collected from or about a population affected by a crisis require a restrictive data policy based on a ‘need-to-know’ basis
  • Neutrality – data should be collected in ways that will not be perceived as taking sides in a conflict or in situations of political instability or tension
  • Impartiality – data collected should be designed in an unbiased manner and be sensitive to the needs of marginalized groups
  • Independence – data collected should not be used to advance political, economic, military or other objectives

2. Partner organization and stakeholders are many in a crisis. A crisis response can include for profit organizations, non-governmental organizations, inter-governmental organizations, philanthropic foundations, networks of volunteers, researchers, military/police, and populations affected by the crisis. It is common for them to differ in their values, priorities, desired outcomes, and preferred implementation strategies. Therefore terms of engagement are needed to move effectively forward.

3. Problem Recognition is important to ensure a successful innovation. The stakes associated with a crisis are elevated given the involvement of populations affected. Careful attention to problem recognition is critical to guide all subsequent development, and in who participated in identifying and defining problems. Value sensitive design stipulates identifying both direct and in-direct stakeholders to track harms and benefits throughout the development cycle.

4. Intended vs Actual Use. Despite the best planning and development efforts there may be situations where the intended and actual use illuminate ethical shortcomings. Considerations on how the technology is actively being used can have unintended consequences or unanticipated uses of collected data. This can be particularly acute if the collected data is made an open source.

5. On-Going Systems requirements. Other planning considerations in the diffusion of information management tools come into play. These include maintenance and upgrades, authorized access, cyber-security, data management until end of use, and data ownership.

The use of information technology by humanitarian organizations in response to a crisis is expanding. New tools can improve the coordination and provision of services to affected individuals and communities. The growing accumulation of data leads to an imperative to include value and ethical considerations during the whole planning, development, and deployment process. Ethical considerations must be considered across the innovation cycle.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s