Statistics New Zealand calls in experts to advise all public servants on data ethics

By Stephen Easton

Wednesday July 31, 2019

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Agencies of the New Zealand government will take advice on the ethical use of public data from a new expert panel pulled together by Stats NZ chief executive Liz MacPherson, to make sure they bear in mind the rights of the citizens behind the data.

“There are countless opportunities and benefits that new and emerging uses of data can provide to the state sector, but we mustn’t lose sight of the importance of people in that data,” MacPherson said in a statement.

“To this end, I have convened an independent Data Ethics Advisory Group to help government agencies use data appropriately and effectively, ensuring that New Zealanders can have trust and confidence in the way their data is collected and used.”

The NZ government has also taken steps to bring the public along with its bureaucrats as they employ more advanced computer software in the delivery of services, with a major report in aid of “government algorithm transparency” published last year.

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The new data-ethics advisory body for NZ public servants was brought together in response to that report, which followed a review led by McPherson and the government’s chief digital officer, Paul James.

The review aimed to inform New Zealanders about how the government uses algorithms and build public confidence, based on self-assessment by 14 agencies. “Humans, rather than computers, review and decide on almost all significant decisions made by government agencies,” according to the report.

“As public servants, we need to be honest and acknowledge that we don’t have all the answers. This group will help ensure decisions around the use of data are made with input from people who have a range of backgrounds and expertise,” said MacPherson.

“As Government Statistician, I am excited to be able to bring our own work to this group to challenge our thinking and gain independent advice and guidance.”

The group is chaired by Professor Juliet Gerrard, a biochemist at the University of Auckland and the chief scientific advisor to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

Its members include several other academic experts in health, privacy, human rights law, ethics, digital technology, innovation, and public policy as well as the chief executive of Women’s Refuge New Zealand, Ang Jury.

MacPherson will also shortly appoint another member of the group from the Te Ao Māori Co-Design Group, an initiative of Stats NZ to come up with an approach to data governance for te Ao Māori — the world of the Māori including language, culture and the physical environment.

The group will meet four times a year in Wellington and come under review after its first 12 months of operation.

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