Data Ethics Decision Aid


To publish or not to publish? Journalists are no stranger to the ethical dilemmas that this question encompasses.

And, working with data can complicate the ethical decision-making process further.

From the risks of misinterpreting patterns in your data, privacy and sensitivity issues, and the dangers of individuals being identified through your analysis - it can be difficult to fully unpack the ethical implications of publishing (or not).

To help journalists, and other data practitioners, combat these risks, the Utrecht Data School has developed Data Ethics Decision Aid, or DEDA.

DEDA is a toolkit designed to those working with data navigate difficult ethical issues through a deliberation and documentation process. We spoke to Iris Muis, DEDA’s project manager, to find out more.

DDJ: Can you provide us with a brief overview of DEDA?

IM: DEDA is our Data Ethics Decision Aid, developed over the past years in cooperation with data analysts of the City of Utrecht. Find more information and a brief overview on our website, where you can download our DEDA materials for free.

DEDA is: a poster which can be used during our data-ethics workshop or independently (however, we do recommend a workshop for the first use of DEDA in an organisation). We have a handbook that provides extra explanation and also acts as a report when it is filled in.

Image: A portion of the DEDA worksheet.

There is also a DEDA app, especially made for project leaders of a data project. Lastly, there is a booklet, with real-life examples of cases in which ethics have been completely ignored and ended badly. This booklet is meant for people who say that they do not need data ethics. (Everyone needs data ethics).

We have given it a Creative Commons non-commercial and share alike license, so that everyone can use it for non-commercial purposes.

What do you see as the most pressing issue that DEDA is trying to solve?

Often we see that people do not talk about ethics, or that when they do, they make arguments purely based on subjective feelings. DEDA provides a systematic decision and reflection model, which gives data project teams, project leaders and policy makers the opportunity to reflect on data ethics together and document their choices.

Given that ethical issues can be wide-ranging and subjective, how did you incorporate these unknowns into the project?

We tried to cover as many topics that could be relevant in DEDA. However, there might be issues that are of importance, which we have not included. DEDA is not meant to be exhaustive, but is meant to kickstart a discussion about ethics. In the end, the people who are in a data team are the ones with the best knowledge on their respective topics, so they have the best means to figure out the best ethical approach to their project. DEDA gives them the mindset and tools to have such reflections.

How can DEDA help journalists understand the ethical issues they face when telling stories with data?

DEDA is for everyone who works with data. Try it!

How has DEDA been received so far?

DEDA have been received overwhelmingly positive. So far, it has been implemented in the city of Utrecht and the City of Dordrecht, we are working with the Academie voor de Wetgeving in The Hague (which is the institution that informs all Ministry’s on legality of policies and laws) and with numerous educational institutions all over The Netherlands.

What’s next for the project?

We want to implement DEDA in many municipalities and organisations with a public role as possible. We are currently speaking to a lot of parties to make this happen. We are also developing a special DEDA for researchers, which is nearly finished now. Data ethics needs to be pushed higher on the political agenda. Therefore, we invite everyone with a special interest in data ethics to reach out and help us making this happen.

Explore DEDA here.