Skip to main content

Beyond checklists: critical thinking about data ethics, technology and AI

In this post, we discuss what we have learned from creating the Data Ethics and Society Reading Group, and let you know what you can expect from our next event, on Artificial Unintelligence, on December 6th (sign up online).

It was a bright cold day in April…

three people sat on a bench reading books and taking notes. Photo by Alexis Brown on Unsplash

In 2020, we (Harriet, Michael and Hillary) created a space where public sector employees from any department could come together and discuss data ethics, technology and society. The aim of the space was  to breathe life into the concepts and topics mentioned in data ethics frameworks

Hillary and Harriet had attended a DataKind ethics book club where Ruha Benjamin's Race After Technology was discussed. Unlike the DataKind event, which is open to all, we felt it was important to create a safe environment where public sector workers could discuss challenging topics freely, topics like feminism, race and sexuality - discussing how these ethical issues relate to our work with a critical lens.

To ensure equality, we believe that it’s important to be able to freely discuss inequalities and where and how we can apply data and ethics frameworks in our work. 

And thus, the Cross-Government Data Ethics and Society Reading Group was born!

How to run a session: the Goldilocks approach

With the exception of Hillary, none of us were particularly skilled at event planning. Discussion groups began rather haphazardly, as we tried to figure out what worked best in a (virtual) public sector context.

The first book we read was Data Feminism by Catherine D’Ignazio and Lauren F. Klein, a book which is now entirely open-access. We split our discussion of it across three sessions due to its length and enormity of its contents (ranging from an initiative to record cases of femicide in an open, accessible manner, to the Gender Shades project). 

Whilst we had great attendance at our first event, in retrospect, while we would undoubtedly recommend engaging with the discussion in this book, it was perhaps not the best starting point for data ethics. Each chapter could have been a standalone book in itself! Discussion points are definitely key! 

We pitched our second event to be more like a journal club, bringing together journal and media articles we had found interesting, loosely themed around bias in data. This format was however less popular than a traditional ‘book club’-style reading and discussion group. 

We again returned to the book format to discuss Kate Crawford’s Atlas of AI, which presents AI as a technology of extraction: from the minerals drawn from the earth right through to the labour of low-wage information workers.  

Attendance varied substantially between events, with many no-shows. It was difficult to predict what would attract more people, but each event took the same amount of time to coordinate. 

“And this one was just right…”

At the start of this year, we reflected on our sessions so far. We now hold one session per book, with suggestions of particular chapters of interest. We also introduced more structure, by committing to holding four sessions per year: one per book. You will now see us promoting our events via the Analysis Function, Operational Research & Statistical Service newsletters, in addition to the Cross Government Data Science Slack #ethics channel. 

Some colleagues come to every session, others are intrigued by a particular book or author. We want to encourage everyone and anyone to engage with the material. You do not have to be someone who works with data, just a curiosity and willingness to think critically about the material. 

This year, we have read: 

What to expect at a session

A Data Ethics and Society Reading Group session runs for an hour over lunchtime.  A date for the session and a book will be confirmed (using your suggestions!), a few months in advance. 

Numbers vary: sometimes we have smaller groups, but recently attendance has been closer to 50! 

After a short introduction to the group and material, attendees are split into breakout rooms to discuss the book in smaller groups. Hosts suggest discussion questions, but each breakout room tends to take discussion in different directions. At the end of the session, we come back together to share highlights.

No notes or recordings are taken from the sessions, and whilst we encourage everyone to participate, we know that people engage in a multitude of different ways. We are open to suggestions on how we make the group more inclusive and cater for the needs of everyone. If you have an idea, please get in touch!

We are sure that the reading group will continue to shape-shift as time goes on. For now, we hope that it serves as a starting point for public sector colleagues to critically engage with data ethics alongside data practitioners. 

Have you read…?

We are always looking for recommendations and suggestions of what to read and discuss next. We also encourage guest-hosts of the event, particularly in pairs.

We have a full reading list on our website. Some highlights include:

    • The Ethical Data Scientist, Cathy O’Neil (Author of ‘Weapons of Math Destruction’), February 4 2016, Slate Magazine
    • Automating Inequality, Virginia Eubanks
    • Fair Warning, Abeba Birhane, February 24 2020, Real Life Magazine

Our website is powered by GitHub, which means that it is really easy for you to suggest reading material and be listed in our ‘contributors’ section. You can raise an issue listing all the information we need. 

Our next session: Artificial Unintelligence

On Tuesday 6th December, we will be running our final session of 2022, by focusing on Artificial Unintelligence by Meredith Broussard

Sign up online.

To hear about events in future, you can sign up to our mailing list.

Michael and Harriet

Sharing and comments

Share this page