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Roger Clarke's 'Guidelines for Data Analytics'

Guidelines for the Responsible Application of Data Analytics

Version of 18 October 2017

Roger Clarke **

© Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, 2015-17

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The vague but vogue notion of 'big data' is enjoying a prolonged honeymoon. Well-funded, ambitious projects are reaching fruition, and inferences are being drawn from inadequate data processed by inadequately understood and often inappropriate data analytic techniques. As decisions are made and actions taken on the basis of those inferences, harm will arise to external stakeholders, and, over time, to internal stakeholders as well. A set of Guidelines is presented, whose purpose is to intercept ill-advised uses of data and analytical tools, prevent harm to important values, and assist organisations to extract the achievable benefits from data, rather than dreaming dangerous dreams.


1. Introduction

Previous enthusiams for management science, decision support systems, data warehousing and data mining have been rejuvenated. Fervour for big data, big data analytics and data science has been kindled, and is being sustained, by high-pressure technology salesmen. Like all such fads, there is a kernel of truth, but also a large penumbra of misunderstanding and misrepresentation, and hence considerable risk of disappointment, and worse.

A few documents have been published that purport to provide some advice on how to avoid harm arising from the practice of these techniques. Within the specialist big data analytics literature, the large majority of articles focus on techniques and applications, with impacts and implications relegated to a few comments at the end of the paper rather than even being embedded within the analysis, let alone a driving factor in the design. But see Agrawal et al. (2011), Saha & Srivastava (2014), Jagadish et al. (2014), Cai & Zhu (2015) and Haryadi (2016), and particularly Merino et al. (2016).

Outside academe, most publications that offer advice appear to be motivated not by the avoidance of harm to affected values, but rather the protection of the interests of organisations conducting analyses and using the results. Examples of such documents in the public sector include DoF (2015) - subsequently withdrawn, and UKCO (2016). Nothing resembling guidelines appears to have been published by the relevant US agencies, but see NIST (2015) and GAO (2016).

Some professional codes and statements are also relevant, such as UNSD (1985), DSA (2016), ASA (2016) and ACM (2017). Examples also exist in the academic research arena, e.g. Rivers & Lewis (2014), Müller et al. (2016) and Zook et al. (2017). However, reflecting the dependence of the data professions on the freedom to ply their trade, such documents are oriented towards facilitation, with the protection of stakeholders commonly treated as a constraint rather than as an objective.

Documents have begun to emerge from government agencies that perform regulatory rather than stimulatory functions. See, for example, a preliminary statement issued by Data Protection Commissioners (WP29 2014), a consultation draft from the Australian Privacy Commissioner (OAIC 2016), and a document issued by the Council of Europe Convention 108 group (CoE 2017). These, however, are unambitious and diffuse, reflecting the narrow statutory limitations of such organisations to the protection of personal data. For a more substantial discussion paper, see ICO(2017).

It is vital that guidance be provided for at least those practitioners who are concerned about the implications of their work. In addition, a reference-point is needed as a basis for evaluating the adequacy of organisational practices, the codes and statements of industry and professional bodies, the provisions of laws and statutory codes, and requirements published by regulatory agencies. This paper's purpose is to offer such a reference-point, expressed as guidelines for practitioners who are seeking to act responsibly in their application of analytics to big data collections.

This paper draws heavily on previous research reported in Wigan & Clarke (2013), Clarke (2016a, 2016b), Raab & Clarke (2016) and Clarke (2017). It also reflects literature critical of various aspects of the big data movement, notably Bollier (2010), boyd & Crawford (2011), Lazer et al. (2014), Metcalf & Crawford (2016), King & Forder (2016) and Mittelstadt et al. (2016). It first provides a brief overview of the field, sufficient to provide background for the remainder of the paper. It then presents a set of Guidelines whose intentions are to filter out inappropriate applications of data analytics, and provide a basis for recourse by aggrieved parties against organisations whose malbehaviour or misbehaviour results in harm. An outline is provided of various possible applications of the Guidelines.

2. Background

The 'big data' movement is largely a marketing phenomenon. Much of the academic literature has been cavalier in its adoption and reticulation of vague assertions by salespeople. As a result, definitions of sufficient clarity to assist in analysis are in short supply. This author adopts the approach of treating as 'big data' any collection that is sufficiently large that someone is interested in applying sophisticated analytical techniques to it. However, it is important to distinguish among several categories:

The term 'big data analytics' is distinguishable from its predecessor 'data mining' primarily on the basis of the decade in which it is used. It is subject to marketing hype to almost the same extent as 'big data'. So all-inclusive are its usages that a reasonable working definition is:

Big data analytics encompasses all processes applied to big data that may enable inferences to be drawn from it

The term 'data scientist' emerged two decades ago as an upbeat alternative to 'statistician' (Press 2013). Its focus is on analytic techniques, whereas the more recent big data movement commenced with its focus on data. The term 'data science' has been increasingly co-opted by the computer science discipline and business communities in order to provide greater respectability to big data practices. Although computer science has developed some additional techniques, a primary focus has been the scalability of computational processes to cope with large volumes of disparate data. It may be that the re-capture of the field by the statistics discipline will bring with it a recovery of high standards of professionalism and responsibility - which, this paper argues, are sorely needed. In this paper, however, the still-current term 'big data analytics' is used.

Where data is not in a suitable form for application of any particular data analytic technique, modifications may be made to it in an attempt to overcome the problems. This was for many years referred to as 'data scrubbing', but it has become more popular among proponents of data analytics to use the misleading terms 'data cleaning' and 'data cleansing' (e.g. Rahm & Do 2000, Müller & Freytag 2003). These terms imply that the scrubbing process reliably achieves its aim of delivering a high-quality data collection. Whether that is actually so is highly contestable, and is seldom demonstrated through testing against the real world that the modified data purports to represent. Among the many challenging aspects of data quality is what should be done where data-items that are important to the analysis are empty ('null'), or contain values that are invalid according to the item's definition, or have been the subject of varying definitions over the period during which the data-set has been collected. Another term that has come into currency is 'data wrangling' (Kandel et al. 2011). Although the term is honest and descriptive, and the authors adopt a systematic approach to the major challenge of missing data, their processes for 'correcting erroneous values' are merely computationally-based 'transforms', neither sourced from nor checked against the real world. The implication that data is 'clean' or 'cleansed' is commonly an over-claim, and hence such terms should be avoided in favour of the frank and usefully descriptive term 'data scrubbing'.

Where data is consolidated from two or more data collections, some mechanism is needed to determine which records in each collection are appropriately merged or linked. In some circumstances there may be a common data-item in each collection that enables associations between records to be reliably postulated. In some cases, a combination of data-items (e.g., in the case of people, the set of first and last name, date-of-birth and postcode) may be regarded as representing the equivalent of a common identifier. One mainstream approach to this is referred to as data matching (Clarke 1994). Other approaches can be adopted, but generally with even higher incidences of false-positives (matches that are made but that are incorrect) and false-negatives (matches that could have been made but were not). A further issue is the extent to which a consolidated collection should contain all entries or only those for which a match has (or has not) been found. This decision may have a significant impact on the usability of the collection, and on the quality of inferences drawn from it.

Significantly, descriptions of big data analytics processes seldom make any provision for a pre-assessment of the nature and quality of the data that is to be processed. See, for example, Jagadish (2015) and Cao (2017). Proponents of big data analytics are prone to make claims akin to 'big' trumps 'good', and that data quality is irrelevant if enough data is available. Circumstances exist in which such claims may be reasonable; but for most purposes they are not (Bollier 2010, boyd & Crawford 2011, Clarke 2016a), and data quality is an important consideration. McFarland & McFarland (2015) argue that 'precisely inaccurate' results arise from the 'biassed samples' that are an inherent feature of big data.

A structured framework for assessing data quality is presented in Table 1. It draws on a range of sources, importantly Huh et al. (1990), Wang & Strong (1996), Müller & Freytag (2003) and Piprani & Ernst (2008). See also Hazen et al. (2014). Each of the first group can be assessed at the time of data acquisition and subsequently, whereas those in the second group, distinguished as 'information quality' factors, can only be judged at the time of use.

Underlying these factors are features of data that are often overlooked, but that become very important in the 'big data' context of data expropriation, re-purposing and merger. At the heart of the problem is the materially misleading presumption that data is 'captured'. That which pre-exists the act of data collection comprises real-world phenomena, not data that is available for 'capture'. Each item of data is created, by a process performed by a human or an artefact that senses the world and records a symbol that is intended to represent some aspect of the phenomena that is judged to be relevant. The choices of phenomena and their attributes, and of the processes for creating data to represent them, are designed and implemented by or on behalf of some entity that has some purpose in mind. The effort invested in data quality assurance at the time it is created reflects the characteristics of the human or artefact that creates it, the process whereby it is created, the purpose of the data, the value of the data and of data quality to the relevant entity, and the available resources. In short, the relationship between the data-item and the real world phenomenon that it purports to represent is not infrequently tenuous, and is subject to limitations of definition, observation, measurement, accuracy, precision and cost.

Table 1: Quality Factors

Adapted version of Table 1 of Clarke (2016a)

The conduct of data analytics also depends heavily on the meanings imputed to data-items. Uncertainties arise even within a single data collection. Where a consolidated collection is being analysed, inferences may be drawn based on relationships among data-items that originated from different sources. The reasonableness of the inferences is heavily dependent not only on the quality and meaning of each item, but also on the degree of compatibility among their quality profiles and meanings.

A further serious concern is the propensity for proponents of big data to rely on correlations, without any context resembling a causative model. This even extends to championing the death of theory (Anderson 2008, Mayer-Schonberger & Cukier 2013). It is very common for proponents of big data analytics to interpret correlations as somehow being predictive, and then apply them as if they were prescriptive.

When big data analytics techniques are discussed, the notion of Artificial Intelligence (AI) is frequently invoked. This is a catch-all term that has been used since the mid-1950s. Various strands have had spurts of achievement, particularly in the pattern-matching field, but successes have been interspersed within a strong record of failure, and considerable dispute (e.g. Dreyfus 1992, Katz 2012). Successive waves of enthusiasts keep emerging, to frame much the same challenges somewhat differently, and win more grant money from parallel new waves of funding decision-makers. Meanwhile, the water has been muddied by breathless, speculative extensions of AI notions into the realms of metaphysics. In particular, an aside by von Neumann about a 'singularity' has been elevated to spirituality (Moravec 2000, Kurzweil 2005), and longstanding sci-fi notions of 'super-intelligence' have been re-presented as philosophy (Bostrom 2014).

Multiple threads of AI are woven into big data mythology. Various words with a similarly impressive sound to 'intelligent' have been used as marketing banners, such as 'expert', 'neural', 'connectionist', 'learning' and 'predictive'. Definitions are left vague, with each new proposal applying Arthur C. Clarke's Third Law, and striving to be 'indistinguishable from magic' and hence to gain the mantle of 'advanced technology'. Within the research community, expressions of scepticism are in short supply, but Lipton (2015) encapsulates the problem by referring to "an unrealistic expectation that modern feed-forward neural networks exhibit human-like cognition".

One cluster of techniques is marketed as 'machine learning'. A commonly-adopted approach ('supervised learning') involves some kind of (usually quite simple) data structure being provided to a piece of generic software, often one that has an embedded optimisation function. A 'training set' of data is fed in. The process of creating this artefact is claimed to constitute 'learning'. Aspects of the "substantial amount of 'black art'" involved are discussed in Domingos (2012).

Even where some kind of objective is inherent in the data structure and/or the generic software, application of the metaphor of 'learning' is something of stretch for what is a sub-human and in many cases a non-rational process (Burrell 2016). A thread of work that hopes to overcome some of the weaknesses expands the approach from a single level to a multi-layered model. Inevitably, this too has been given marketing gloss by referring to it as 'deep learning'. Even some enthusiasts are appalled by the hyperbole: "machine learning algorithms [are] not silver bullets, ... not magic pills, ... not tools in a toolbox -- they are method{ologie}s backed by rational thought processes with assumptions regarding the datasets they are applied to" (Rosebrock 2014).

A field called 'predictive analytics' over-claims in a different way. Rather than merely extrapolating from a data-series, it involves the extraction of patterns and then extrapolation of the patterns rather than the data; so the claim of 'prediction' is bold. Even some enthusiasts have warned that predictive analytics can have "'unintended side effects' - [things] you didn't really count on when you decided to build models and put them out there in the wild" (Perlich, quoted in Swoyer 2017).

There is little doubt that there are specific applications to which each particular approach is well-suited - and also little doubt that each is neither a general approach nor deserving of the hifalutin title used to market it. As a tweeted aphorism has it: "Most firms that think they want advanced AI/ML really just need linear regression on cleaned-up data" (Hanson 2016).

The majority of big data analytics activity is performed behind closed doors. One common justification for this is commercial competitiveness, but other factors are commonly at work, in both private and public sector contexts. As a result of the widespread lack of transparency, it is far from clear that practices take into account the many challenges that are identified in this section.

Transparency is in any case much more challenging in the contemporary context than it was in the past. During the early decades of software development, until c.1990, the rationale underlying any particular inference was apparent from the independently-specified algorithm or procedure implemented in the software. Subsequently, so-called expert systems adopted an approach whereby the problem-domain is described, but the problem and solution, and hence the rationale for an inference, are much more difficult to access. Recently, purely empirical techniques such as neural nets and the various approaches to machine learning have attracted a lot of attention. These do not even embody a description of a problem domain. They merely comprise a quantitative summary of some set of instances (Clarke 1991). In such circumstances, no humanly-understandable rationale for an inference exists, transparency is non-existent, and accountability is impossible (Burrell 2016, Knight 2017). To cater for such problems, Broeders et al. (2017), writing in the context of national security applications, called for the imposition of a legal duty of care and requirements for external reviews, and the banning of automated decision-making.

This brief review has identified a substantial set of risk factors. Critique is important, but critique is by its nature negative in tone. It is incumbent on critics to also offer positive and sufficiently concrete contributions towards resolution of the problems that they perceive. The primary purpose of this paper is to present a set of Guidelines whose application would address the problems and establish a reliable professional basis for the practice of data analytics.

3. The Guidelines

The Guidelines presented here avoid the word 'big', and refer simply to 'data' and 'data analytics'. These are straightforward and generic terms whose use conveys the prescriptions' broad applicability. The Guidelines are of particular relevance to personal data, because data analytics harbours very substantial threats when applied to data about individuals. The Guidelines are expressed quite generally, however, because inferences drawn from any form of data may have negative implications for individuals, groups, communities, societies, polities, economies or the environment. The purpose of the Guidelines is to assist in the avoidance of harm to all values of all stakeholders. In addition to external stakeholders, shareholders and employees stand to lose where material harm to a company's value arises from poorly-conducted data analytics, including not only financial loss and compliance breaches but also reputational damage.

The Guidelines are presented in Table 2, divided into four segments. Three of the segments correspond to the successive processes involved - acquisition of the data, analysis of the data in order to draw inferences, and use of the inferences. The first segment specifies generic requirements that apply across all of the phases.

Each Guideline is expressed in imperative mode, some in the positive and others in the negative. However, they are not statements of law, nor are they limited to matters that are subject to legal obligations. They are declarations of what is needed in order to manage the risks arising from data quality issues, data meaning uncertainties, incompatibilities in data meaning among similar data-items sourced from different data-collections, misinterpretations of meaning, mistakes introduced by data scrubbing, approaches taken to missing data that may solve some problems but at the cost of creating or exacerbating others, erroneous matches, unjustified assumptions about the scale against which data has been measured, inappropriate applications of analytical tools, lack of review, and confusions among correlation, causality, predictive power and normative force.

The organisations and individuals to whom each Guideline is addressed will vary depending on the context. In some circumstances, a single organisation, a single small team within an organisation, or even a single individual, might perform all of the activities involved. On the other hand, multiple teams within one organisation, or across multiple organisations, may perform various of the activities.

The Guidelines are intended to be comprehensive. As a result, in any particular context, some of them will be redundant, and some would be more usefully expressed somewhat differently. In particular, some of the statements are primarily relevant to data that refers to an individual human being. Such statements may be irrelevant, or may benefit from re-phrasing, where the data relates to inanimate parts of the physical world (e.g. meteorological, geophysical, vehicular traffic or electronic traffic data), or to aggregate economic or social phenomena. In such circumstances, careful sub-setting and adaptation of the Guidelines is appropriate.

Table 2: Guidelines for the Responsible Application of Data Analytics

PDF version downloadable here

4. Ways to Apply the Guidelines

These Guidelines, in their current or some adapted form, can be adopted by any organisation. Staff and contractors can be required to demonstrate that their projects are compliant, or, to the extent that they are not, to explain why not. In practice, adoption may be driven by staff and contractors, because many practitioners are concerned about the implications of their work, and would welcome the availability of an instrument that enables them to raise issues in the context of project risk management.

Organisational self-regulation of this kind has the capacity to deliver value for the organisation and for shareholders, but it has only a mediocre track-record in benefiting stakeholders outside the organisation. A stronger institutional framework is needed if preventable harm arising from inappropriate data, analysis and use is to be avoided.

Industry associations can adopt or adapt the Guidelines, as can government agencies that perform oversight functions. Industry regulation through a Code of Practice may achieve some positive outcomes for organisations in terms of the quality of work performed, and particularly by providing a means of defending against and deflecting negative media reports, public concerns about organisational actions, and acts by any regulator that may have relevant powers. In practice, however, such Codes are applied by only a proportion of the relevant organisations, are seldom taken very seriously (such as by embedding them within corporate policies, procedures, training programs and practices), are unenforceable, and generally offer very limited benefits to external stakeholders. Nonetheless, some modest improvements would be likely to accrue from adoption, perhaps at the level of symbolism, but more likely as a means of making it more difficult for data analytics issues to be ignored.

Individual organisations can take positive steps beyond such, largely nominal, industry sector arrangements. They can do so by entering into formal undertakings to comply with a Code, combined with submission to the decisions of a complaints body, ombudsman or tribunal that is accessible by any aggrieved party, that has the resources to conduct investigations, that has enforcement powers, and that uses them. Unfortunately, such arrangements are uncommon, and it is not obvious that suitable frameworks exist within which an enforceable Code along the lines of these Guidelines could be implemented. Another possibility is for a formal and sufficiently precise Standard to be established, and for this to be accepted by courts as the measuring-stick against which the behaviour of organisations that conduct data analytics is to be measured. A loose mechanism of this kind is declaration by an organisation that it is compliant with a particular published Standard. In principle, this would appear to create a basis for court action by aggrieved parties. In practice, however, it appears that such mechanisms are seldom effective in protecting either internal or external stakeholders.

As discussed earlier, some documents exist that at least purport to provide independent guidance in relation to data analytics activities. These Guidelines can be used is as a yardstick against which such documents can be measured. The UK Cabinet Office's 'Data Science Ethical Framework' (UKCO 2016) was assessed against an at-that-time-unformalised version of these Guidelines, and found to be seriously wanting (Raab & Clarke 2016). For different reasons, and in different ways, the Council of Europe document (CoE 2017) falls a very long way short of what is needed by professionals and the public alike as a basis for responsible use of data analytics. The US Government Accountability Office has identified the existence of "possible validity problems in the data and models used in [data analytics and innovation efforts - DAI]" (GAO 2016, p.38), but has done nothing about them. An indication of the document's dismissiveness of the issues is this quotation: "In automated decision making [using machine learning], monitoring and assessment of data quality and outcomes are needed to gain and maintain trust in DAI processes" (p.13, fn.8). Not only does the statement appear in a mere footnote, but the concern is solely about 'trust' and not at all about the appropriateness of the inferences drawn, the actions taken as a result of them, or the resource efficiency and equitability of those actions. The current set of documents from the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST 2015) is also remarkably devoid of discussion about data quality and process quality, and offers no process guidance along the lines of the Guidelines proposed in this paper.

Another avenue whereby progress can be achieved is through adoption by the authors of text-books. At present, leading texts commonly have a brief, excusatory segment, usually in the first or last chapter. Curriculum proposals commonly suffer the same defect, e.g. Gupta et al. (2015), Schoenherr & Speier-Pero (2015). Course-designers appear to generally follow the same pattern, and schedule a discussion or a question in an assignment, which represents a sop to the consciences of all concerned, but does almost nothing about addressing the problems, and nothing about embedding solutions to those problems within the analytics process. It is essential that the specifics of the Guidelines in Table 2 be embedded in the structure of text-books and courses, and that students learn to consider each issue at the point in the acquisition / analysis / use cycle at which each challenge needs to be addressed.

None of these approaches is a satisfactory substitute for legislation that places formal obligations on organisations that apply data analytics, and that provides aggrieved parties with the capacity to sue organisations where they materially breach requirements and there are material negative impacts. Such a scheme may be imposed by an activist legislature, or a regulatory framework may be legislated and the Code negotiated with the relevant parties prior to promulgation by a delegated agency. It is feasible for organisations to themselves submit to a parliament that a co-regulatory scheme of such a kind should be enacted, for example where scandals arise from inappropriate use of data analytics by some organisations, which have a significant negative impact on the reputation of an industry sector as a whole.

5. Conclusions

This paper has not argued that big data and big data analytics are inherently evil. It has also not argued that no valid applications of the ideas exist, nor that all data collections are of such low quality that no useful inferences can be drawn from them, nor that all mergers of data from multiple sources are necessarily logically invalid or necessarily deliver fatally flawed consolidated data-sets, nor that all data scrubbing fails to clean data, nor that all data analytics techniques make assumptions about data that can under no circumstances be justified, nor that all inferences drawn must be wrong. Expressed in the positive, some big data has potential value, and some applications of data analytics techniques are capable of realising that potential.

What this paper does, however, is to identify a very large fleet of challenges that have to be addressed by each and every specific proposal for the expropriation of data, the re-purposing of data, the merger of data, the scrubbing of data, the application of data analytics to it, and the use of inferences drawn from the process in order to make, or even guide, let alone explain, decisions and action that affect the real world. Further, it is far from clear that measures are being adopted to meet these challenges.

Ill-advised applications of data analytics are preventable by applying the Guidelines proposed in this paper. As the 'big data' mantra continues to cause organisations to have inflated expectations of what data analytics can deliver, both shareholders and external stakeholders need constructive action to be taken in order to get data analytics practices under control, and avoid erroneous business decisions, loss of shareholder value, inappropriate policy outcomes, and unjustified harm to individual, social, economic and environmental values. The Guidelines proposed in this paper therefore provide a basis for the design of organisational and regulatory processes whereby positive benefits can be gained from data analytics, but undue harm avoided.


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The author received valuable feedback from Prof. Louis de Koker of La Trobe University, Melbourne, David Vaile and Dr Lyria Bennett Moses of UNSW, Sydney, Dr Kerry Taylor of the ANU, Canberra, and Dr Kasia Bail of the University of Canberra. Evaluative comments are those of the author alone.

Author Affiliations

Roger Clarke is Principal of Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, Canberra. He is also a Visiting Professor in Cyberspace Law & Policy at the University of N.S.W., and a Visiting Professor in the Research School of Computer Science at the Australian National University.

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