Justice is the common thread in Hilary Richters’ life. “I’ve always stood up for the people no one cared for. And now I still do.” Because fairness is at the heart of responsible data use, she explains. With all these new technologies, data and algorithms, the human dimension must remain central.
In her role at Deloitte, Richters has already convinced many organizations of this truth. But as far as she’s concerned, we’re not there yet. “The subject of digital ethics blew over from academia to the corporate world a few years ago. When we started our Digital Ethics program in 2019, it was not yet a popular topic. People thought it was a little strange. Fortunately that is different now. I see that companies do consider it an important topic. Unfortunately, I also see that this topic is not yet at the top of the priority list. Some organizations are still struggling with the ‘how’ question. But the fact that they find it important is at least a start.”
Childcare benefits scandal
Some organizations are now working on digital ethics out of their own interest. They believe that it suits their role in society to handle data in a responsible manner. Others have been awakened by the many scandals surrounding this subject. Just take the Dutch childcare benefits scandal, which has dominated the front pages in recent years. Or the reporting about algorithms that are based on historical data with many biases, which discriminate against certain target groups.
“And then there are the organizations that are waiting for regulations. Because they are busy with issues that are higher on their priority list. Or because they are afraid that – if they anticipate the rules – they will set up an ethical framework that will soon not fit within the new legislation and regulations,” says Richters.
“Many organizations understand that they have to do ‘something’ with it, but they are not doing anything yet. The common denominator is that they don’t really know how to get started. I understand this struggle. Responsible use of data is not only a major technological change. It also requires a change in culture. Many organizations have been working in the same way for tens of years and have collected data for just as long. That makes this subject even more challenging.”
Mindset: creative and innovative
How you approach this depends on your mindset. “You can see digital ethics as yet another limitation, but you can also look at it in an innovative way. A bit like the chef who has developed a great three course menu but also has to deal with punters who suffer from allergies. They could say: ‘Those guests needn’t come here’. Or say: ‘I won’t change anything, but I also won’t say anything about the allergens’, with a risk of people getting sick and the restaurant suffering reputational damage. Or say: ‘My goal is to provide that great taste sensation. How do I do that for the widest possible audience?’ That is creativity and innovation!”