English grapples with the ethics of statistics
By Richard Harman (author)
New Zealand’s often-brittle ethnic divides were on full display at a high-powered all-day conference at the Beehive yesterday.
With Finance Minister Bill English and Statistics Minister Craig Foss in attendance the conference was called to help develop the ground rules for the use of statistics in formulating social policy.
“Big data” plays a critical role in English’s Social Investment approach to social policy.
The data is used to identify at-risk groups in society and then target resources to them.
Given the high proportion of Maori and Pasifika in the at-risk groups, the way the data is gathered and then used is of particular sensitivity to Maori and Pasifika non-governmental organisations who contract with the Government to carry out the social programmes.
In general Maori speakers at the “Data Hui” supported the Government’s overall approach.
Herewini Te Koha, the CEO of Te Runanganui o Ngati Porou, said: "we just need to move the dial in our part of the world and to do that we need to confront some fairly tough social and economic conditions."
Debbie Sorensen, from Pasifika Futures, an organisation which deals with 5500 Pasifika families said her organisation backed the use of data because it wanted to know what worked.
“We all want to know what works,” she said.
"We know a lot about what doesn't work, but we really need to know what doesn't work.'
That was why families in her programmes were generous in providing data.
But she said her organisation faced difficulties because much data was not broken down into Pacific ethnicities.
“There is no island called Pacific,” she said.
The way data dealt with ethnicity was a major theme through the day.
Dr Will Edwards, chair of the Iwi Leaders’ group on data said Maori NGOs should always be asking “how does our work best serve our people.”
“I think you data heads here and the politicians should start to think about the Maori world view,” he said.
“One of the most important things about open data is the tension between a Maori world view of collective rights and a commercial world view around individual rights.
"It's a tension that Maori organisations and iwi grapple with on a day to day basis."
Dr Edwards reflected a widespread concern at the hui that data collection could easily become privacy invasion.
One speaker said people they dealt with were particularly concerned about data that had been collected from the police and how it might be used.
The Government Statistician, Liz McPherson, emphasised that data was not about numbers "but about the people behind the numbers".
She said Statistics wanted to enter into partnerships with NGOs.
“How can we work together to break down barriers to change lives,” she asked.
She said Statistics held the data in trust and the power was in the use of the data.
Finance Minister Bill English, who confessed to a fascination with what data could tell us about peoples’ lives that we didn’t know, said the Government expected some tension over the way it wanted to use data to target its social investments.
“We have a relentless focus on outcomes,” he said.
And he said the point of using the data was to change people’s lives.
Therefore it was necessary to address the impediments that stood in the way of the use of data.
One of the biggest is what is being called "Data Sovereignty".
English said that the customers owned their data.
"I know that's not how it is organised, but it happens to be the law," he said.
"Creating access to that data in a way that the public at large can trust is going to be a real challenge," he said.
Not everyone agreed.
Danae Goddard Ward from the Canterbury DHB said medical data was more complex with clinicians also claiming a right to own a patient's data.
That might be necessary some time in the future after a patient had been treated so that the treatment could be referred to or investigated.
For that reason, the Government has setup a body, chaired by the Auckland City Missioner, Dame Dianna Robertson, whose job it is to consult with the public at large about the big ethical questions about data.
She is about to launch what she is calling a "Social Licence Conversation" with 30 separate meetings around the country to debate the questions raised yesterday.
In many ways, this is only the beginning as the Government uses statistical data to target its entire social welfare, health and justice spend.
It's not exaggeration to say that data will form the basis of the Government's social policies which is why discussing
the ethics of its use is going to become an increasingly high profile (and possibly noisy) debate.