3 Actions for Ethical Data Collection During Pandemics

Data and analytics leaders must apply data ethics to their decision-making process when collecting, using and sharing data, especially during the COVID-19 crisis.

Israel passed an emergency law mandating that its domestic intelligence services track people. The Rhode Island police are making residential door-to-door visits, inquiring whether anyone has been to New York State, to restrict the movements of out-of-state visitors to slow the spread of coronavirus. COVID-19 elevated and expanded the demand for data collection, use and sharing.

The coronavirus response calls for urgent and unusual measures in an effort to stem the spread. However, your decisions as a data and analytics leader on how your organization collects, uses and shares this data must adhere to data ethics. If not, you risk causing more harm than good.

Avoid falling into the trap of being too single-minded or outcome-determinative in decision making around the collection, use and sharing of data

“Ethics are about promoting the good and avoiding the bad, which is exactly what you should be trying to achieve when dealing with COVID-19,” says Lydia Clougherty Jones, Senior Director Analyst, Gartner. “Data and analytics leaders are playing a pivotal role in guarding against data misuse through the pandemic crisis. But it is important to avoid falling into the trap of being too single-minded or outcome-determinative in decision making around the collection, use and sharing of data to combat the crisis and the data dilemmas that arise from it.”

Balance the need for swift and decisive action with ethical data collection, use and sharing by following three steps. This will curb data misuse, especially from unknown data reuse and resharing, and maintain business value resiliency.

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Share your data, data insights and data talent across the public and private sectors

Your data sharing needs to align with your core ethical values and business priorities to safeguard against data misuse. Lend your data assets or share data with others if appropriate, both in commercial enterprise and government.

In parallel, limit the number of people who have access to your own data, but do not stand in the way of data access. If appropriate, prepare to discard the information you have collected once it has served its limited purpose. Consider seeking advice from your application leaders on what digital trust technologies are readily available to control your collection, use and sharing of data.

Collaborate with others on the decision-making process

Collaborating with others allows you to gain multiple perspectives on data dilemmas that impact employees, customers and governmental entities.

Ethical decision making should start with critical thinking, then incorporate different moral reasoning perspectives, considering alternative outcomes. Engage people from across the organization, including legal, marketing, sales, operations, finance and IT. Ideally, the group should reflect different, and even competing, cognitive styles, temperaments and cultural values.

Regularly review the global examples of data dilemmas from COVID-19 resource materials and the news

“Combining different styles of thinking and perspectives leads to a more balanced and measured way of deciding whether to collect data, how to use it and with whom to share it. It also helps set the right conditions to mitigate data misuse from reuse and resharing,” says Clougherty Jones.

In addition, regularly review the global examples of data dilemmas from COVID-19 resource materials and the news with respect to work-from-home (WFH) employees, customer nonperformance and government surveillance, among others. Discuss these with other leaders in your organization who have different perspectives regarding employee privacy and leniency for customers who may need extra time or need to be excused from contractual performance.

Reevaluate temporary measures regularly and return to normal where possible

Temporary measures include actions like Italy reportedly searching anonymized data from Facebook, local telcos that aggregate users’ movement to help with contact tracing or other forms of monitoring, or police in Florida setting up a highway checkpoint on the state border to screen for drivers from New York City.

Those examples demonstrate that drastic times call for drastic measures. But ensure temporary measures around data collection, use and sharing stay temporary. Once the crisis is over, identify and retain what you have learned. For example, the U.S. healthcare privacy regulations (HIPAA — Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) has always restricted telehealth practices, which are now being permitted. This is a practice that perhaps should be continued.

Gartner clients can read more in Data Ethics and COVID-19: Making the Right Decisions for Data Collection, Use and Sharing by Lydia Clougherty-Jones, et al. Gartner clients can also visit the Gartner COVID-19 Resource Center to learn more about how to lead through the disruption of coronavirus.

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