The CDEI’s mission is to ensure the UK maximises the benefits of data-driven technologies, that those benefits are fairly distributed across society, and to create the conditions for ethical innovation to thrive.
Now, more than ever, this mission is paramount - governments around the world are looking for technological innovations in their efforts to control the spread and minimise the effects of COVID-19. In South Korea an app is being used to monitor the movements of quarantined citizens, and Singapore’s Trace Together app has provided an early example of how digital contact tracing can help identify those who might have been exposed to the virus. In the UK, NHSX has announced it will soon be rolling out its own digital contact tracing app designed to reduce the spread of the virus.
Ethical questions have been at the forefront of the public debate about digital innovation in the UK’s pandemic response. An open letter was sent by a group of ‘responsible technologists’ calling for transparency from NHSX in the development of its contact tracing app, and there have been calls for legal safeguards in relation to digital records of citizens’ COVID-19 antibody status (‘immunity passports’). Safe digital innovation to monitor and mitigate the spread and impact of the virus requires an awareness of the complex ethical issues at play, from digital exclusion and discrimination through to surveillance and social control.
The CDEI is supporting the public sector’s response at this crucial moment, working to ensure that the speed at which innovation must move doesn’t demand that the values of transparency, privacy, scrutiny and good governance are foregone - compromising the public’s trust in public sector innovation longer term.
Independent oversight of digital innovation
The CDEI is led by an independent board of experts, and we continue to be operationally independent of DCMS and wider government. However, there are some practical ways we are supporting the public sector response. The team whose work the board oversees is made up of civil servants, who have expertise across data and tech policy, strategy, operations and communications. Many of these skills are now in high demand, with staff members across other government departments temporarily unable to fulfil their roles owing to sickness, increased childcare responsibilities, or caring for elderly dependents. A number of CDEI staff have been temporarily deployed to teams in government where they are most needed.
In parallel, the CDEI will continue to fulfil its stated mission - with a specific focus on live projects within government related to coronavirus. Currently there are three main activities underway:
- Supporting NHSX directly, including advising them on how to deploy technology with appropriate safeguards. NHSX has invited Roger Taylor, the CDEI’s Chair, to be Vice Chair of the Ethics Advisory Board. This Ethics Advisory Board provides independent advice and recommendations to the app oversight board. Two further members of the CDEI board, Dame Glenys Stacey and Professor Luciano Floridi, are also members.
- Promoting best practice in the use of AI and data-driven technology to support COVID-19 response efforts. The CDEI has begun to track how AI and data-driven technology are being used to support COVID-19 response efforts around the world. From detecting the unfair pricing of medical equipment on e-commerce marketplaces, to identifying spam accounts that spread COVID-19 disinformation, AI and data-driven technology are being applied in myriad ways to support the vulnerable and cushion the impact of the pandemic. We will monitor the most promising innovations and promote best practice at home and abroad.
- Reviewing our 2020/21 work programme to ensure the CDEI is doing everything it can to assist the UK's long-term recovery from the crisis. We are actively shifting priorities and resources to projects that support efforts to respond to COVID-19.
Is the CDEI pausing all other work?
Our year-long review into bias in algorithmic decision-making was due to be published at the beginning of April. Although the work was progressing according to plan, we have decided to delay publication until a time when the government will be in a better position to consider our recommendations, and other organisations who we have been consulting with will be better able to review the draft report. For those who have kindly spent the time to feed into the review, your input has been extremely valuable, and we do still intend to publish when the initial phase of the current crisis has abated, as well as to take practical steps to deliver some of the recommendations set out in the review.
We have other upcoming publications planned: a snapshot briefing paper on facial recognition technology; a review of challenges in data sharing and governance; and the first version of our AI Barometer (an annual cross-sector view of risks and opportunities from data-driven technology). We intend to publish these at an appropriate point in the coming weeks and months.
We will continue to progress other new work from our 2020/21 work programme, including follow-up activities from our bias and targeting reviews, as resources allow, and will share more about our plans in the near future.