Thinking public services Data & AI Ethics

Digital Ethics: A Roadmap For Scotland

In this article

Government, industry and academia in Scotland have ambitious plans for digital and data-driven innovation, involving technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), with far-reaching consequences.

Government, industry and academia in Scotland have ambitious plans for digital and data-driven innovation, involving technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), with far-reaching consequences.

Shopping, personal finance, networking and even voting are being reshaped by the internet and social media, while our engagement with public services is increasingly taking place on digital platforms.

All of these developments have benefits – for our economy, science, education, access to services, entertainment, and even our social lives – but they also come with potential downsides.

Examples include new risks associated with personal privacy and choice, exposure to harmful content or false advertising, attitude manipulation by vested interests, access inequalities, personal online abuse and fraud, biased algorithms, and environmental damage from energy consumption.

Woman consulting doctor on tablet

Charting the course

In 2019, when the Scottish Government wanted to engage with the people of Scotland in planning digital policy, they commissioned Edinburgh Innovations, the University of Edinburgh’s commercialisation service, to produce a report setting out a roadmap for fairer digital Scotland.

Dr Claudia Pagliari, who leads the Global eHealth Group at the University of Edinburgh’s Usher Institute, chaired an expert group of academics from Scottish, British and European universities who reviewed evidence from around the world and undertook a number of ‘deep-dives’ into sectors where digital is presenting ethical dilemmas, such as education and the gaming industry.

In parallel, the charities Carnegie UK and Involve convened a public panel to explore key issues to feed into the report. All of this information was then collated and ultimately edited by Data Children Collaborative.

The report

The report’s authors emphasise the importance of public trust, as digital innovation often involves elements such as data sharing. They consider how public trust can be achieved, setting out an ‘objects of trust’ framework including privacy, transparency, institutions and fairness.

They then explore how the framework can be applied across seven key themes: public awareness, harm protection, ‘green’ digital, algorithmic decision making, inclusion, monitoring and surveillance and future of work in a digital economy.

They make recommendations for each theme.

Key recommendations include:

Putting in place a digital ombudsman, or National Digital Guardian, to ensure oversight and public awareness

Citizen-led participation, to involve users meaningfully in digital innovation processes

Establishing an effective legal and regulatory framework to ensure privacy, safety and accountability

Honest conversations about the trade-offs between the benefits of digital innovation and the carbon footprint of data – ensuring the journey to net zero is respected.

Next steps

Enterprise Minister Ivan Mckee welcomed the report’s publication in November 2022, saying: “I would like to thank the Expert Group and wider contributors for their dedication and hard work to produce this important report, highlighting the importance of building and maintaining trust as an essential ingredient for a successful digital society.

Our aim in the Digital Strategy for Scotland is to set out a vision of an ethical digital nation based on the recommendations of the Expert Group and subsequent discussions with the public, stakeholders and civic society.”

Dr Pagliari

Dr Pagliari said she looked forward to seeing the implementation of the report’s recommendations in the coming weeks and months.

Professor Shannon Vallor, Baillie Gifford Chair in the Ethics of Data and Artificial Intelligence at the University of Edinburgh and a member of the expert group, concluded:

Digital innovation, through harnessing data and artificial intelligence, has huge potential to help improve people’s lives and secure the future of our planet. However, given the speed of progress, it is vital that we take time to put in place the governance and checks that will ensure data serves people and planet before profit.

– Professor Shannon Vallor

Related links

To read the full report visit the Scottish Government website

To read the public panel report visit Carnegie UK

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