Approaching ethics and big data

What to do when facing the stoic expressions that pop up during ethics discussions.

The other day I clicked on a message posted to the O’Reilly editors’ email list and the message text filled up almost the entire monitor screen. I must admit that I thought “Am I going to require another caffeine hit to read through this?”

I decided to take a chance, not take another break just then, and read the lengthy note. I didn’t need that caffeine hit after all. Apparently, neither did half a dozen other editors.

The note was about ethics.

In a previous life, I worked in the competitive intelligence field. I remember participating in a friendly confab at an industry event and then someone mentioned the word “e-t-h-i-c-s”. It was rather fascinating to see how that word elicited stoic faces.  No one wanted to be the first person to say anything on that topic. Now when working at ORM, mention the word “ethics!” and folks are not shy about saying exactly what they think. Not. At. All.

During the discussion, Ethics of Big Data by Kord Davis, came up.  While I was not the editor on this book, I did read it when I was in New York. It made my list of recommended books for people looking to jump into the world of big data. Why? Because I remembered the stoic poker faces from my previous life in competitive intelligence.

Sometimes people are willing to debate ethics head-on. For example, when I was listening to Fred Trotter’s session at StrataRX, I had to keep myself from shouting “RIGHT ON!” when he talked about moral compasses, ethics, and patient data. I was decidedly less restrained at DataGotham though. I didn’t keep myself from laughing out loud when I was in the audience and listening to Joseph Turian’s session:

Also, I couldn’t help but smile at the passionate perspectives when I was reading through the ORM editors’ thread about ethics.

Yet, sometimes, when facing the stoic poker faces … you need tools to help bring about the discussion. Ethics of Big Data is one of those tools.  If you are navigating a corporate culture that is supremely riddled with layers upon layers of complex politics and is not open to head-on passionate debate on ethics, then Kord’s insights and approach will help. After I finished the book, I wished that I had something like this years ago.

I should warn you that this is not the last time that I will discuss or publish on ethics. We have also published perspectives about ethics within the Strata community site before. Yet, ethics is not a topic to be confined to one perspective, approach, definition, or a handful of posts. Ethics is an ongoing dialog that is extremely important for us to have, especially for those of us that work with data and make decisions on what to do with it.

Don’t forget to contact us at pitchstrata@oreilly.com if you have a tip or an idea that you’d like to write about for the Strata blog.

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