Data scientists focus on big data ethics

Professionals working with big data analytics agree that there needs to be a stronger focus on ethics within their sector and that consumers should be concerned about the potential privacy implications of giving up their personal information.

These are among the findings of a survey carried out at the 2013 Joint Statistics Meetings Conference, which took place last month in Montreal. The majority of data scientists attending the event said that customers need to pay attention to this area, with 88 percent stating this is an issue.

Four out of five respondents added there needs to be an ethical framework in place for the collection and use of personal data. More than half said this already plays a major role in their research, while a further 28 percent said there should be industry-wide standards implemented.

There was a particularly strong focus on this in sectors such as life sciences and healthcare, which frequently deal with highly sensitive personal information. 92 percent of data scientists working in this industry stated that clear guidelines are necessary.

In an interview with InformationWeek, David Smith vice-president of corporate marketing for Revolution Analytics, which conducted the research, said it is not surprising that there is such a strong recognition of the importance of ethics and privacy protection among data scientists, as these professionals work with sensitive information every day and get to see first hand the power of data.

“Statisticians and data scientists are uniquely positioned to understand the privacy implications of data, especially the implications of combining lots of different data sources together, which is happening a lot today,” he said.

Mr Smith added that while powerful data analytics tools can be used to put personal information to very good use, there is also the potential for it to be used for “nefarious” purposes, which is a potential danger that is widely recognized by data scientists.

He added that in the wake of privacy scandals such as the NSA spying revelations, it is clear that there is plenty of room for improvement when it comes to the ethical handling of data and reassuring consumers that such information will not be misused.