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Four steps for drafting an ethical data practices blueprint

Four steps for drafting an ethical data practices blueprint

In 2019, UnitedHealthcare’s health-services arm, Optum, rolled out a algorithm to 50 healthcare organizations. With the aid of the software, doctors and nurses were able to monitor patients with diabetes, heart disease and other chronic ailments, as well as help them manage their prescriptions and arrange doctor visits.

SwissCognitiveOptum is now under investigation after research revealed that the algorithm (allegedly) recommends paying more attention to white patients than to sicker Black patients.

Today’s data and analytics leaders are charged with creating value with data. Given their skill set and purview, they are also in the organizationally unique position to be responsible for spearheading ethical data practices. Lacking an operationalizable, scalable and sustainable data ethics framework raises the risk of bad business practices, violations of stakeholder trust, damage to a brand’s reputation, regulatory investigation and lawsuits.

Here are four key practices that chief data officers/scientists and chief analytics officers (CDAOs) should employ when creating their own ethical data and business practice framework.

Identify an existing expert body within your organization to handle data risks

The CDAO must identify and execute on the economic opportunity for analytics, and with opportunity comes risk. Whether the use of data is internal — for instance, increasing customer retention or supply chain efficiencies — or built into customer-facing products and services, these leaders need to explicitly identify and mitigate risk of harm associated with the use of data.

A great way to begin to build ethical data practices is to look to existing groups, such as a data governance board, that already tackles questions of privacy, compliance and cyber-risk, to build a data ethics framework. Dovetailing an ethics framework with existing infrastructure increases the probability of successful and efficient adoption. Alternatively, if no such body exists, a new body should be created with relevant experts from within the organization. The data ethics governing body should be responsible for formalizing data ethics principles and operationalizing those principles for products or processes in development or already deployed.

Ensure that data collection and analysis are appropriately transparent and protect privacy

All analytics and projects require a data collection and analysis strategy. Ethical data collection must, at a minimum, include: securing informed consent when collecting data from people, ensuring legal compliance, such as adhering to GDPR, anonymizing personally identifiable information so that it cannot reasonably be reverse-engineered to reveal identities and protecting privacy.

Some of these standards, like privacy protection, do not necessarily have a hard and fast level that must be met. CDAOs need to assess the right balance between what is ethically wise and how their choices affect business outcomes. These standards must then be translated to the responsibilities of product managers who, in turn, must ensure that the front-line data collectors act according to those standards.[…]

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