IBM partnership to develop big data ethical guidelines

16 November 2015

  • New course to teach ethics of big data 
  • Delivered in partnership with IBM
  • Existing research codes not fit for purpose
  • Learn how to use online tools ethically

A partnership between the University of Warwick and IBM is to offer researchers guidance through the ethical minefield of using big data and real-time analytics.

Following an existing successful academic partnership between the two organisations IBM is providing $20,000 (£12,000) to support the development of new postgraduate training.

Warwick Business School will be helping to develop the three-day workshop on ethics of big data and data linkage. Arne Strauss, Associate Professor of Operational Research, will be working with Maria Liakata, Assistant Professor of Computer Science, and Emma Uprichard, Associate Professor at the University of Warwick's Centre for Interdisciplinary Methodologies (CIM).

Dr Strauss said: "There may be some awareness among students of the potential threats that analysing and linkage of data offers, but it became apparent that the scale of information that can be obtained on individuals and what one could do with it still surprises most of them. With this award, we intend to raise this awareness and also to provide some guidance on how data should or should not be used." 

Dr Uprichard, who is also co-director of the Warwick Q-Step Centre, said: “There is a growing recognition that many professional codes of ethics relating to research and practice are increasingly 'not fit for purpose' given the challenges of big data and real-time analytics.

“Researchers are increasingly turning to online tools with little or no ethical guidance other than some vague semblance that it is important to bear in mind basic key principles. Therefore, thanks to IBM, we will be developing online materials that can be used to develop and deliver successful training sessions in this area.”


Arne Strauss
Big ethical dilemmas: (l-r) Maria Liakata, Emma Uprichard and Arne Strauss at the official launch of the postgraduate course on the ethics of big data and data linkage in partnership with IBM


The money has been granted by the IBM Faculty Awards, which is a competitive programme intended to foster collaboration between researchers at leading universities worldwide, and those in IBM research, development and services organisations.

The three-day module will be offered to postgraduate students across CIM, Warwick Business School, Computer Science, Politics and International Studies (PAIS), and Sociology as well as other students from a variety of disciplines that are increasingly using big data.

Currently researchers gain 'informed consent' and provide assurances concerning privacy, confidentiality and anonymity when using data for studies. However, as there is a diverse range of public and interlinked data available online that can be easily ‘scraped’ and ‘mined’, the ethical situation has become more complex.

The training will be based on a similar module built and delivered by IBM at Warwick Business School. Work conducted by IBM into big data ethics will be used to shape the course content.

Paul Martynenko, IBM’s Vice President and Technical Executive, Europe, said: “Many companies are now where science was 25 years ago and there has been so much development in the use of big data and data analysis. IBM’s Distinguished Engineer, Mandy Chessell and Global Executive, Advanced Analytic Solutions, Colin Shearer, have both provided advice and guidance on the project.

“I have no doubt that the training developed by IBM and the University of Warwick will be of great use to many businesses.”

Speaking at the official launch of the course Professor Christina Hughes, the University of Warwick’s Pro-Vice-Chancellor (teaching and learning), and Chair of the Advisory Board of the Warwick Q-Step Centre, said: “The award supports the tremendous opportunity to situate Warwick as a leading university for both research and teaching in the digital arena.

“What have we done here at Warwick is demonstrate how important it is that we invest in this big data for the future of social science and for the future of the UK's contribution internationally to cutting edge – and importantly, ethical - data research and teaching more generally.”

Arne Strauss teaches Pricing & Revenue Management and Text Analytics on the MSc Business Analytics course.

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