Doing Good Data Science

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There has been a lot of healthy discussion about data ethics lately. We want to be clear: that discussion is good, and necessary. But it’s also not the biggest problem we face. We already have good standards for data ethics. The ACM’s code of ethics, which dates back to 1993, is clear, concise, and surprisingly forward-thinking; 25 years later, it’s a great start for anyone thinking about ethics. The American Statistical Association has a good set of ethical guidelines for working with data. So, we’re not working in a vacuum.

And, while there are always exceptions, we believe that most people want to be fair. Data scientists and software developers don’t want to harm the people using their products. There are exceptions, of course; we call them criminals and con artists. Defining “fairness” is difficult, and perhaps impossible, given the many crosscutting layers of “fairness” that we might be concerned with. But we don’t have to solve that problem in advance, and it’s not going to be solved in a simple statement of ethical principles, anyway.

The problem we face is different: how do we put ethical principles into practice?

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