Include ethics when teaching big data

WW Business Intelligence Enablement Strategy Leader, IBM

This break out session on the social, media and human-computer interaction (HCI), and teaching considerations for big data was one part of a colloquium run by IBM’s Technical Consultancy Group, the UK & Ireland affiliate to the Academy of Technology, which hosted 40 leading academics in big data and analytics from UK universities last week at the Royal Academy of Engineering in London. 

Key topics included:

  • Ethical considerations that surround big data
  • Utilisation of new forms of data to predict human decision making
  • Challenges for business schools offering modules on big data

The ability to analyze big data provides the analytical world with new opportunities to predict behavior. Access to new forms of data (social media, text analysis and internet data) external to the organization environment, when analyzed in conjunction with internal data, provides the ability to research, predict trends and ask questions that were not possible before. Data scientists can do analysis that is so advanced,  it can invade an individual's privacy, without breaking data protection laws.

Yet, individuals are willing to provide personal information and agree to be tracked by organizations, in return for short-term rewards or relevant offers. Organizations therefore need to consider the context of their analysis from the data that they collect, in order to stay within ethical boundaries. The ability to predict a health concern or pregnancy based on purchases is deemed ethically a step too far from which an organization should launch a marketing campaign.



A team led by Mandy Chessell, IBM distinguished engineer, observed that "analysis used in context" is one of nine areas that emerged during their research to develop an Ethics Framework as a guideline for organizations.

With the magnitude of new topics that surround big data, as well as the need to teach traditional theories, there are concerns around the shortage of experts and the amount of study that students need in order to be prepared for the workplace as our future data scientists. However, in this grey world of the use of personal information and intellectual property for analysis purposes, ethics in big data is one of those topics that business schools should consider as part of their mandatory big data curriculum.

Read the first two posts from this series:

  1. Big data is multi-disciplinary
  2. Are data artists essential for big data success?
  3. Big data architecture: Methods to protect identity and the citizen

Download Ethics for big data and analytics