Hilary Richters: ‘Responsible data use is about technology and culture’

How do you translate the warmth of people and their values and norms into cold technology, consisting of ones and zeros? That is what digital ethics or responsible data use is all about. “To really do something with this, we need to help each other and learn from each other,” says Hilary Richters, Lead Digital Ethics at Deloitte.

Justice is the common thread in Hilary Richters’ life. “I’ve always stood up for the people no one cared for. And now I still do.” Because fairness is at the heart of responsible data use, she explains. With all these new technologies, data and algorithms, the human dimension must remain central.

In her role at Deloitte, Richters has already convinced many organizations of this truth. But as far as she’s concerned, we’re not there yet. “The subject of digital ethics blew over from academia to the corporate world a few years ago. When we started our Digital Ethics program in 2019, it was not yet a popular topic. People thought it was a little strange. Fortunately that is different now. I see that companies do consider it an important topic. Unfortunately, I also see that this topic is not yet at the top of the priority list. Some organizations are still struggling with the ‘how’ question. But the fact that they find it important is at least a start.”

Childcare benefits scandal

Some organizations are now working on digital ethics out of their own interest. They believe that it suits their role in society to handle data in a responsible manner. Others have been awakened by the many scandals surrounding this subject. Just take the Dutch childcare benefits scandal, which has dominated the front pages in recent years. Or the reporting about algorithms that are based on historical data with many biases, which discriminate against certain target groups.

“And then there are the organizations that are waiting for regulations. Because they are busy with issues that are higher on their priority list. Or because they are afraid that – if they anticipate the rules – they will set up an ethical framework that will soon not fit within the new legislation and regulations,” says Richters.

“Many organizations understand that they have to do ‘something’ with it, but they are not doing anything yet. The common denominator is that they don’t really know how to get started. I understand this struggle. Responsible use of data is not only a major technological change. It also requires a change in culture. Many organizations have been working in the same way for tens of years and have collected data for just as long. That makes this subject even more challenging.”

Mindset: creative and innovative

How you approach this depends on your mindset. “You can see digital ethics as yet another limitation, but you can also look at it in an innovative way. A bit like the chef who has developed a great three course menu but also has to deal with punters who suffer from allergies. They could say: ‘Those guests needn’t come here’. Or say: ‘I won’t change anything, but I also won’t say anything about the allergens’, with a risk of people getting sick and the restaurant suffering reputational damage. Or say: ‘My goal is to provide that great taste sensation. How do I do that for the widest possible audience?’ That is creativity and innovation!”

Responsible data use is above all a subject that brings opportunities. “If you as an organization use data and technology to optimally serve large groups of consumers, you can use this topic to increase consumer confidence. As an organization, you can show that you deserve the loyalty of your current and future customers. If you work for a public organization or an organization that is very tightly regulated, you probably also use data technology to stay cost-efficient. Even then, the trust of citizens or customers is important. If they won’t give you their trust, you cannot continue to use more extensive digitization within the organization.”

There are several ways to get started with digital ethics. “I see that good steps are being taken in all sectors. The most important success factor is that senior management puts this on the agenda. In addition, you should especially look at what suits your type of organization. Some organizations start training their employees, others immediately start thinking about how responsible data use translates into their technology-driven products.”

Tada and AMdEX

The Board has also put responsible data use high on its agenda. In 2017, the Board, together with partners, already drew up the manifesto Tada. It contains the six values for a responsible digital city. “That’s a very good initiative, because you need a common language and frameworks when you talk about this topic. Therein lies a direct challenge: how can you best operationalize these six values and apply them in practice? That is exactly what I often hear from my customers. They know this is necessary, but what is the next step?”

AMdEX, another Board initiative, is one of the answers to that question. AMdEX wants to enable a secure and reliable data exchange between organizations and is investigating various use cases for this, for example in collaboration with the University of Amsterdam. Also, KLM is currently working with AMdEX partners on how to securely share data about aircraft maintenance.

Richters therefore hopes that the Board will continue to bring people together around this subject. “Actually, there should be a platform where you always discuss the how-question. A testing ground where people can submit their questions and where they are challenged by others from the network. And that should not only concern technical issues, but also vision, governance, procedures, training and much more. The Board and the forerunners can be an inspiration for the parties in the region that are not that far yet. This way you create a snowball effect.”

Text: Mirjam Streefkerk

25 October 2021

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