Government recruits independent advisors on data ethics

Group to help ensure decisions around the use of data are made with input from people with a range of backgrounds and expertise

Credit: Dreamstime

The government's chief data steward has formed a data ethics advisory group to help government agencies use data appropriately and effectively and to “ensure New Zealanders can have trust and confidence in the way their data is collected and used.”

The chief data steward Liz MacPherson—also CEO of Statistics NZ—said the group would help ensure decisions around the use of data were made with input from people with a range of backgrounds and expertise.

“As public servants, we need to be honest and acknowledge that we don’t have all the answers,” she  said. “As government statistician, I am excited to be able to bring our own work to this group to challenge our thinking and gain independent advice and guidance.”

According to the group’s web page, it will “help maximise the opportunities and benefits from new and emerging uses of data, while responsibly managing potential risk and harms[,] … will enable government agencies to test ideas, policy and proposals related to new and emerging uses of data. … [and] will also provide advice on trends, issues, areas of concern, and areas for innovation it becomes aware of.”

The move follows the release last year by the government of a report into the use of algorithms by government agencies that found few safeguards against biased algorithms, and saying there was ample scope for government agencies to lift their game.

Earlier in the year the New Zealand Human Rights Commission had issued a report warning that public sector use of algorithms for predictive purposes could lead to unfair treatment of individuals or groups. It called for steps to be taken to ensure such practices conformed to human rights and ethical standards.

And in May this year the New Zealand Law Foundation issued a report warning against the unregulated user of artificial intelligence algorithms by government and calling for the establishment of a regulatory/oversight agency. It said algorithms had led to troubling outcomes in other countries and called

Statistics NZ said members of the group had been appointed following a call for expressions of interest seeking individuals with experience in privacy and human rights law, ethics, innovative data use, te Ao Māori, technology, and public policy.

The Prime minister’s chief science advisor and professor in biological sciences at the University of Auckland, professor Juliet Gerrard has been appointed the group’s chair.

She said the group would provide a forum to “discuss in depth the opportunities that the combination of data and technology can bring to benefit Aotearoa New Zealand, while keeping front of mind the growing challenges we will face to ensure that our data is appropriately and sensitively treated, and that data sovereignty is respected.”

Other members of the group are

•    Dr Amohia Boulton – director of Whakaue Research Services, adjunct professor Faculty of Health and Environmental Services at Auckland University of Technology (AUT), and visiting senior research fellow at Victoria University of Wellington

•    Dr Ang Jury – chief executive, Women’s Refuge

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•    Dr Will Koning – chief data officer, Kantar New Zealand

•    Kate O’Connor – executive manager, AUT Ethics Committee

•    Dr Nessa Lynch – Associate professor of law, Victoria University of Wellington

•    Professor Colin Simpson – associate dean of research and innovation, Victoria University of Wellington.

Statistics NZ said a representative of Te Ao Māori Co-Design Group, which supports the Māori Data Governance work, would be appointed shortly.

The group will meet four times a year in Wellington. Its function and membership will be reviewed after 12 months. Relevant meeting agendas, papers, and minutes will be published on data.govt.nz.

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