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The ethical use and distribution of data requires strategic choices from companies

In a crisis situation, technology offers lots of possible solutions. Diverse services and planned applications require the use of our data. Although there may be a need to hurry, it is important to ensure responsible data use, during an emergency and once it is over.



Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is important in the operations of companies and organisations during times of crisis. Right now, different parties need to think about where the boundary lies between the extensive collection and use of data and people’s privacy. Even though processing data is a day-to-day task for companies, reviewing it from an ethical perspective and as part of corporate responsibility is still relatively new.

The workshop series Making data part of CSR is organised jointly by Sitra and FIBS, Finland’s leading promoter of sustainable business and developer of corporate responsibility expertise. In the series, the group collects the views of companies, compiles guidelines for the ethical use of data and defines what it means in practice for companies’ operations. We hope that this will help organisations to more transparently report how data is collected, managed and used. Making the use of data transparent for customers and stakeholders is important in itself and increases trust in a company’s operations.

Solid foundation for sustainable business from trust

A survey conducted by Sitra in January 2019 indicated that people considered security, consent, transparency and anonymity important in the use of data. Now is a good moment to stop and think about how these values can be respected in the best way possible while companies must find ways to survive the crisis. Now more than ever, it is a question of trust and the ways in which it could be increased between different parties in society.

In the second online meeting of the Making data part of CSR workshop series, we reviewed the ethical use of data from the points of view of individuals, companies and ethnical codes, together with some 20 pioneer companies. The aim was also to highlight specific tools and identify good practices and ways to promote the ethical use of data within organisations and companies in accordance with the principles of a fair data economy. In addition, we continued the definition work launched in the previous meeting: what does data as part of corporate social responsibility mean in practice?

Three theses influence the more ethical use of data and business

We addressed the following themes in four different small groups:

  • a definition of the “use of data as part of CSR” concept
  • the most interesting companies in the fair data economy concept
  • fair data economy tools – a case rulebook
  • a company’s data use handbook – what should it be like?

The work of the groups resulted in a few key theses that we consider important to take into account by all organisations that use data.

Thesis 1. Ethical review and interaction with stakeholders and customers

In the workshop, we reviewed the use of data from an ethical point of view, taking different stakeholders into account. The development of business and services in co-operation with stakeholders helps to understand customers’ points of view on the use of data as well. In accordance with the discourse ethics theory used as an example at the workshop, trust can be increased with comprehensible, truthful and honest interaction. In practice, this means that companies should promote dialogue with their stakeholders by actively taking part in discussions on the use of data within different forums and comprehensibly communicating about their data use and operating models both internally and with those outside the organisation. Moreover, they should make use of the tools available for planning the ethical use of data.

The starting point for a human-driven fair data economy is the individual’s ability to influence the use of data as part of a viable and fair digital ecosystem. People are therefore seen as an active party in the data economy.

Thesis 2. Partnerships can promote the goals of sustainable development and sustainable business, but sharing data is ultimately a strategic decision

Companies’ own data strategies play an important role from the point of view of the development of data sharing ecosystems. The data strategy links the digital development of data to the big picture. It also addresses how to operate within the company and how value is generated from data with services and products. Companies need to define and understand what kind of data provides them with the highest value, where they collect it from and how they utilise it, as well as the benefits offered by sharing data.

No company is isolated from the rest of the world; all are linked to a complicated, often global, field of operators via their markets and production chains. Common challenges need to be resolved through co-operation projects. System-level changes associated with the data economy can be reached with co-operation between diverse companies and other parties.

In addition to co-operation, solutions are needed that promote the sharing of data, such as joint agreement models. The rulebook for a fair data economy makes it easier and faster to build and join responsible partnerships. The rulebook contains ready-made agreement templates, questionnaires and code-of-conduct templates. It can also function as a way of demonstrating responsibility in the field of data sharing and use to funders, partners and markets.

Thesis 3. Practical models and example solutions show the way to others

Concrete examples are needed to identify and describe as clearly as possible how data is managed and used. OP’s data balance sheet is a good model that opens up the meaning of data to the organisation itself and its external stakeholders. It explains how the data balance sheet, or data capital and data assets, generate value to both the company and its customers. Transparent and clear reporting also helps to develop key internal processes and increases trust between the company, partners and customers.

However, more good shared practices are still needed. For example, the corporate world needs visible examples of how different parties promote the responsible use of data and how the European data economy is promoted by different parties by implementing the principles of the data economy.

Companies’ data strategies are key elements, but there might be a need for shared data management procedures. Companies should make more visible how they systematically take care of the data they collect while committing to not collecting “unnecessary” data. How is it ensured that the data life cycle thinking is in order? Controlling and managing data is contextual, but there might be a need for a type of non-technical data use handbook for small and large companies alike.

In conclusion: the ethical use of data builds a fair data economy

The successful digital services of the future are based on trust and create value for everyone. In fair data economy partnerships, data is shared between different parties with consent based on mutual agreements in a seamless and transparent way.

The challenge faced by data economy operators is to create new kinds of data economy ecosystems or data networks based on transparency and respect for the rights of individuals. This requires a mutual understanding of the subject and concrete measures, as well as conscious decisions. A joint definition is also needed so that we know what we are talking about when we talk about data as part of corporate social responsibility. We need each other’s expertise for this.

The joint work to build a mutual understanding will continue in the last meeting of the workshop series on 10 June. If you are still interested in learning about the topic, please send an email to Heli Parikka. We are happy to receive reports of practices promoting the fair data economy between organisations to the same address.

This article is the second of three articles published within the Making data part of CSR workshop series. It prepares a foundation for Sitra’s working paper to be published in the autumn of 2020, summarising the output of the workshop series with case examples.

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