Data Ethics


  • Time: 1 hour (10 introduction, 10 teaching, 35 activity, 5 wrap-up)
  • Objectives:
    • Understand the broader implications of using data, including potential harms
    • Understand your organization’s ethical approach to collecting/using data


  • Write down what it means to you to use data “ethically.” What phrases or practices come to mind? After 5 minutes of individual reflection, discuss with a partner.  
  • Compare your responses. Is it different from those who work at different organizations?  If so, why do you think this is? Consider sharing similarities and differences with the group.

Data Ethics Fundamentals

As data has become more accessible in the recent past, many people believe that it is the gold standard for decision making.  This relies partially on the premise that data is inherently unbiased and purely scientific; the saying “You can’t argue with numbers,” is even built on this idea as well!  But when thinking about data, it is critical to understand that there are a host of decisions made even before the data can be analyzed.  For example, who decides what data should be collected and why it is important to your organization?
More broadly, decisions made with data can impact people’s lives in a very material way, and data can play a large role in this.  The aspect of data science that encompasses the “moral obligations of gathering, protecting, and using personally identifiable information and how it affects individuals” is called data ethics.  Since data and technology evolve very rapidly, there is always a host of new questions that one could ask about the ethics of data.

Why is it important to explore data ethics in a nonprofit organization?

Data ethics is important for everyone to consider, but nonprofits are often held to a higher standard when it comes to ethics as agents who seek to promote social justice.  Additionally, nonprofits are subject to the “data imperative,” which is the push towards quantifying outcomes and tracking measurable success.  The inclusion of these measurable points of success in grants, for example, can be potentially critical in your receipt of the grant, and this grant money impacts resources for your programs, which many of you are likely already familiar with.  Each time you make decisions on what data should be included in your reports, decide what to collect, or determine a strategy to analyze your organization’s data, you are applying some kind of ethical framework.  It is important to know and understand your own process for decision making, as well as your organization’s.


The following table has four broad ethical frameworks with an explanation, example that could relate to nonprofits, and links to explore.  Get into four groups to be assigned one of these frameworks, and explore the links to your assigned framework for 10 minutes.  Discuss with your group anything you find interesting and how this ethical framework may/may not apply in your own organization.

Ethical Framework Explanation/Example/Resources
Deontology Explanation: This framework is often called the rule-based approach.  You can decide whether the individual act is moral by attempting to assimilate it to a predefined set of rules.  The Golden Rule (do unto others as you would have others do unto you) is a very famous part of this framework.  More broadly, deontologists use the categorical imperative to make decisions, which is the idea that one should only act on the basis of a universalizable principle; in other words, don’t make exceptions for yourself.  The intentions of a moral actor matter: to be considered moral, acts must be done with the intention of achieving some “good.”

Nonprofit Example: When designing a survey to assess a program’s success, I check my organization’s code of conduct to ensure I am following the standards of data protection and a client’s right to privacy.  In addition, I always send information in a secure and confidential way, following legal regulations like HIPAA and FERPA.

Links to Explore:
Consequentialism Explanation: Consequentialism states that we can judge the rightness or wrongness of an act only on the consequences.  This often involves doing a cost-benefit analysis and deciding what would produce the greatest good for the greatest number of people.

Nonprofit Example: Although my clients are slightly inconvenienced when they have to check in for their after-school programming attendance, I continue to compile this data.  Ultimately, this will help more of my clients in the long run if I can write a grant to receive funding based on my program’s participation rates.

Links to Explore:
Virtue Ethics Explanation: This moral framework seeks to understand the moral character of the individual, rather than one single action.  Moral character is defined as “the set of virtues displayed by a moral agent, each virtue being understood as a habit of moral action directed toward a good.”  We seek to be virtuous, which are in the middle of two vices.  For example, bravery exists somewhere between timidity and rashness.  In this framework, circumstances, context, and cultural backgrounds are important.  There is an emphasis on moral education and building moral habits so that explicit judgment is not required.  We are encouraged to seek assistance from “moral exemplars,” who are individuals we look up to.

Nonprofit Example:  My prior supervisor was extremely patient with clients when they sought to understand what their data was being used for in the organization.  I take this same time to ensure my current clients understand when they ask, because it is what she would do as a virtuous person.

Links to Explore:
Ethics of Care Explanation:  The ethics of care has two foundational principles.  The first is that all humans are morally dependent on one another; we do not make decisions involving morality in a vacuum, and our morality is tied to those around us.  The second principle is that the most vulnerable individuals among us deserve special moral consideration.

Nonprofit Example: When designing a survey, I think carefully about whether or not I should include immigration status information, as those who are undocumented may feel uncomfortable or unwelcome if I seek this information out.

Links to Explore:

After exploring the links and discussing with your partners, we will rearrange the groups so that at least one person from each framework is now in a group together.  Take some time to teach the other person about your framework and compare them.  Together, consider examples of ways that any of the frameworks can be applied or have been applied within your organization.

Closing Discussion

As we have discovered, there are several ways to approach philosophical issues at the intersection of the nonprofit world and the data science world.  Take a moment to share some of the discussions and ideas about philosophical framework applications from your own work.  Are data-driven decisions neutral?  How are you thinking about data ethics differently compared to the beginning of the workshop?

As we close, it is important to remember that there is not always one “right” or “wrong” answer to many of the ethical dilemmas that you may face, nor is there one single ethical framework that fits all situations.  This lesson was intended to equip you with some additional resources and ways to approach ethical issues that may arise.  Thank you for joining or following along with this lesson!

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