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Matt Hickey

Data, data, everywhere:  Reflections on data, ethics, and human community

Like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, we find ourselves surrounded by a sea (of data). The decisions we make as a human community about the collection, analysis, and subsequent use of data to inform both institutional decisions and public policy are ordered to presuppositions about what it means to be human and the extent to which data can inform our understanding of human community. It comes as no surprise that data use and misuse can have a profound impact on human community; rightly approached, data have the potential to inform public policy on issues ranging from educational practices, health information and public health surveillance, and behavioral economics, to virtually any aspect of human community. The human side of data seeks to remind us of those individuals from whom data is obtained as well as those individuals that can be impacted by the interpretation and policy implications of data. Amidst this, one might suggest several “first principles” as reminders of the ethical landscape in which we operate. These principles include: 1). A consistent moral anthropology that understands that no amount of data can wholly capture the human condition; data may help inform, but cannot exhaust what it means to be human or to reside in human community. We must not allow data to blind us to the question of “being human”. 2). A consistent epistemology that understands that data per se is not knowledge (or “wisdom”), and that the exercises of data collection, data analytics, and how data inform public policy are inherently moral exercises that can impact both communities and individuals within a community. 3). An operational transparency; we must, as a society, have nothing to hide about data collection and use. 4). An intellectual humility that understands both the benefits and limits of data; we must be aware that we may (arguably inescapably WILL) be wrong about aspects of data collection and use, and must be willing to be corrected when we err.  Reflection about the place of data within human community, then, engages our deliberative, reflective, and prudential capacity in pursuit of how we ought to order our lives together, an exercise that virtually defines human community. In this sense, our approach to the ethics of data (even BIG data) remains an exercise of moral agency embedded within human community.


Earlier Event: October 5
Colleen Strawhacker
Later Event: October 5