This is How to be Decent with Data

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Data is complex. It’s constantly changing. Trying to adapt and evolve to new demands is hard enough, but as we’re going, we’re running into important ethical questions as well.

We’re faced with a cocktail of complicated issues poured over brand new technologies so few of us fully understand. Individuals, small businesses, and charities are wading into this ill-equipped.

We’ll run through three easy points in ethical data management and explain how they can help. Far from complicating matters, taking an ethical approach to data can make things easier.

Collect Only the Data You Need

Facebook, Twitter, Google; it’s hard to find a big tech company that hasn’t been touched by criticism in relation to data. A lot of attention gets placed on inadequate security and on those who sell your data for profit. But focus is increasingly turning to what we should be collecting in the first place.

Ethical data collection often comes back to the delightfully simple tenet, ‘take only what you need’.

There are very few drawbacks to reducing the amount of data a company collects. It’s ethically sound and it’s better customer service. Personal information is precious. Reducing that data burden is an effective means of managing what has become a huge risk factor for businesses.

Daniel Wu has discussed how Ally Bank managed to improve customer experience by reducing their data asks. By avoiding incessant data grabs, Ally got better data, had less to worry about in security, and delivered better customer service.

If you find your organisation is in a position where it’s collecting too much data, trim those branches back and you’ll be better off.

Be Transparent with the Data You Get

Not long ago, twitter ran into trouble over how they were using phone numbers given to them for two-factor authentication. Users had signed to a great security feature, only to find that Twitter was using their information for advertising.

And Twitter isn’t alone. Facebook has repeatedly come under fire for overstepping in the use of data they’ve collected or simply handing it over to third parties. Misuse of data in its worst examples can destroy trust in a brand and expose businesses to legal action.

Transparency is important in data. Businesses should be explicit about what data will be used for and must ensure they stick to that. This means information has to be held securely and access has to be closely managed.

Failing in that will be a problem for anyone. But explaining in simple terms what you’re doing with data and how you’re keeping it safe can strengthen trust and enhance your reputation. That transparency will build credibility.

We’re thinking more and more about data. People are becoming more aware of the risks their ‘data footprint’ can bring. Show your people you understand those risks and are invested in minimising them.

Don’t Keep Data Forever

Data hoarding resembles real hoarding. Keeping absolutely everything, haphazardly shoving it wherever there’s space, and, of course, never letting go of a single byte.

The era in which organisations keep data forever is coming to an end. European law even states explicitly that data should only be kept for as long as it is necessary to serve its purpose.

Emails addresses, street addresses, phone numbers; these can be all be interesting for organisations and companies chasing leads. But the reality is, something collected years ago isn’t likely to be useful. Wasted time spent following old information is costly. And regulatory bodies are beginning to adopt a stricter approach to overzealous data collection.

Don’t keep data in perpetuity. Filter out what’s necessary for record keeping and get rid of everything else. If you can establish policies for purging old data now, you could find you don’t need to scramble to change processes should the law change in the future. And you won’t be losing much regardless.

Doing Data Well

After a slew of high-profile data scandals, we’re putting data under a spotlight. Laws will change and even the smallest of companies will come under scrutiny. Data will have to be managed closely, and the data organisations collect will have to be kept to a minimum.

Taking an ethical approach to the use of personal information will minimise risk and improve customer service. There’s nothing to lose, and you can prevent a lot of pain in the future.

Does your organisation rely on data? What sort of troubles have you faced, and how are you overcoming them? Get in touch with us on Twitter or Facebook and continue the conversation.

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Kristian Rusten

About

After spending two years working with Amnesty International in New Zealand, Kristian Rusten worked as a refugee caseworker in Greece and now lives in Paris, while writing, freelancing and volunteering.

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