Bridging a gap between technical and non-technical: data ethics as a science communication

Data ethics is one of the most discussed topics around the world. Digital technologies are increasingly influencing our daily lives, and the scale of this impact will only grow. Why are ethical issues so important in the context of technological progress?

Usually, the word ‘ethics’ refers to certain rules and norms of behavior, often restricting the freedom of choice and action. Therefore, in the context of competitive business relationships, ethics is often seen as an obstacle, a complicating circumstance, or an artificial limitation. This view is not only wrong, but also directly dangerous.

In the Greek tradition, ‘ethos’ means a pattern of thinking and behavior. These are the unwritten laws of social life that help avoid conflicts, material, and moral damage. Ethics is an unspoken agreement about what is acceptable or forbidden to do. The content of ethical requirements is formed and tested for social sustainability by centuries of history.

Ethical codes and taboos are needed

Digital technologies are an innovative and significant component of modern civilization, possessing a ‘world-making’ perspective in a certain sense. In this case, humanity does not have enough time to test different variants of ethical norms: well-considered and correct decisions regarding data operations are needed now, as their thoughtless use can bring negative consequences for the lives of individuals, countries, and humanity as a whole. Currently, it is necessary not only to form certain ethical codes and taboos, but also, importantly, to develop and implement ethical rules into the architecture of technological solutions. This is a serious challenge for science communication, as the terminology, ways of argumentation, methodologies, and tools of humanitarian and technological knowledge differ fundamentally. Therefore, we can assert that Data ethics facilitate interdisciplinary collaboration and support continuous learning and adaptation. How does it work for mobility data?

The ethics of mobility data operations at Posmo Cooperative are defined as a priority over economic interests and benefits. This approach represents a paradigm shift in the mobility data market, not only as an example of socially responsible business but also as an operating model of ethical managerial and technological solutions that act as a trustworthy data broker. This trust is based on values of privacy protection, transparency, and accountability in decision-making and data-sharing operations, as well as self-determination and autonomy of data producers. Practically, it means adopting a strategy of maximal involvement of data providers in the data life cycle.

Potential benefits versus risks with the use of data

A necessary requirement for POSMO, not in general,  use of mobility data is obtaining the consent of the data subjects. People should clearly understand the potential benefits and risks associated with the use of their data. Conveying this information to users in an accessible, comprehensive, yet concise manner is a challenging task for companies. Moreover, the data can be used for various purposes, about which POSMO the data subjects should also be timely and accurately informed. Making this information accessible and understandable to a non-specialist audience without oversimplifying is one of the key challenges.

Beyond the challenges of terminology and technology, emotional factors like ‘data fearing’ also play a role in data sharing processes. This occurs when individuals do not want their mobility behavior data collected and used in the public sphere. Accordingly, a significant communication challenge arises in collecting and using mobility data, especially regarding concerns about surveillance and potential misuse for purposes such as targeted advertising or discriminatory practices. Such biases of data providers can lead to serious reputational damage for the company, economic risks, and diminished trust and credibility. To avoid these negative consequences of data use, POSMO invests resources in effective communication both within the cooperative—among members, ethical committee, through technical services and app users—and by engaging external stakeholders including scientific research organizations (BFH), experts with practical experience, and potential data buyers.

Data ethics values are essential for business success and are not an artificial obstacle to achieving it. An ethical approach to mobile data enhances data quality and reliability, thereby making the resulting data more accurate and representative. As is well-known, big tech companies like Alphabet or Facebook do not grant access to their data for research or public governance in city infrastructure, traffic, or ecological issues. Therefore, scientists and policymakers often have to rely on inaccurate or incomplete data or conduct their own surveys, which requires significant costs and resources. The use of mobility data is necessary not just for statistics and analysis of the current situation but also for future predictions, confirming the social significance of their collection and use. POSMO aims for a ‘holistic’ picture of mobility, as it covers short segments (foot, bike) and produces high-quality, protected, and representative data. The practical solutions mentioned above for data usage help keep up with consumer expectations and maintain public trust for sustainable social and economic development.

About the project

The Posmo (POSitive MObility) co-operative collects mobility data of a quality not previously available in Switzerland. The data is not only used as a basis for decision-making for the design of more sustainable mobility, but is also made available in a data market for research, urban development or mobility planning. The aim of the cooperative is not to make a profit, but to make an important contribution to a better future for Switzerland. As mobility data is highly sensitive under data protection law, Posmo has developed an initial concept for the ethical data market in an earlier Innocheque project together with researchers from the Institute for Data Applications and Security IDAS, which is now to be further developed.

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AUTHOR: Olena Yatsenko

Olena Yatsenko is visiting reseacher at the Laboratory of Virtual Reality and robotics at the Bern University of Applied sciences and University philosophy lecturer at the National Pedagogical Drahomanov University (Kiyv, Ukraine).

AUTHOR: Maël Gassmann

Maël Gassmann works as an assistant in the Institute for Data Applications and Security IDAS at the Bern University of Applied Sciences. He has studied computer science with a specialization in IT security.

AUTHOR: Dominic Baumann

Dominic Baumann works as an assistant in the Institute for Data Applications and Security IDAS at the Bern University of Applied Sciences. He is studying computer science with a specialisation in IT security.

AUTHOR: Annett Laube

Annett Laube is a lecturer in computer science at BFH Technik & Informatik and heads the Institute for Data Applications and Security (IDAS). She has technical responsibility for the science magazine SocietyByte, in particular for the focus on Digital Identity, Privacy & Cybersecurity.

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