If you’re not a moral statistician, should you call yourself a data scientist?

The Cambridge Analytica scandal prepares analysts, marketers and journalists for the next big step: to not be in awe of big data, AI and automation.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal calls into question the role of a ‘data scientist’ and the ethics in data gathering.

My concern is on the gatekeeper of data: if a data scientist is not a chartered statistician, are you qualified to call yourself one? Is an undergraduate degree in law or hard science enough to make yourself a moral data scientist – if not a data protection officer?

Anthropologists cannot call their work ‘anthropology’ until the informants and field site are observed for more than six months. Before the six-month period, that qualitative data is not considered reliable data. And the practice has to be governed by ethics.

Big data: a marketer’s emotional crutch

Marketing nowadays heavily relies on data – especially quantitative data, mainly because it needs ‘affirmation’ and not so much because it has confidence in a product’s proposition.

Pre-internet age, products and services still got designed, made and sold in big volumes. The product marketing was still informed by ‘data’, albeit much more simpler and realistic (adhering to the good old Occam’s Razor principle) – not packaged as ‘big’ or ‘deep’ and contained in a cloud environment in a chart-driven ’dashboard’ akin to that of an oracle or divination.

So why not keep to the good old ways of gathering reliable data if it is more efficient and ‘ethical’? Is it because big data harvesting is a job creation scheme in itself?

It’s only data, get over it

Investigative journalists are often asked to be members of the Royal Statistical Society, so that they are comfortable not only in qualitative data but also to enable them to interrogate big data without being overwhelmed or in awe of the automation aspect of this massive volume of data.

Why? Because critical thinking is very crucial in the age of AI and automation.

Note that on the Royal Statistical Society website, the organisation reminds members, and especially those who are chartered, that “a Fellow’s obligations to employers, clients and the profession can never override this; and Fellows should seek to avoid situations and not enter into undertakings which compromise this responsibility.”

Sharing: a happy collusion

Data is enlightening, and to share our experience is wonderful. But those two aspects that allow us to happily collude on Facebook, LinkedIn and so on for so long must now be protected by mutual consent and codes of conduct.

It isn’t a bad thing. It means we now have to figure out new rules – even revisit existing social norms for reinterpretation – for the next stage of the information age.

This piece was first published on LinkedIn on 24 March 2018. Salina Christmas observes how workers make meaning of their labour in the tech and fintech industries.

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