Ethics in EUHubs4Data

13 / 01 / 2023

The Ethics Monitoring Group (EMG) inside the EUHub4Data project comprises representatives of the project’s beneficiaries. It aims to advise the project on ethical aspects, including the handling of personal data; this activity is needed because EUHubs4Data dynamically extends with each experiment selected for funding and the federation of DIHs.  

Within this scope, the EMG reviews the provided documentation of all proposals the external reviewers suggest for funding and reports those to the coordinator and the external advisor. According to the project plan, the EMG “will review activities of the federation and, more specifically, the cross-border experiments, and that will evaluate them concerning ethical topics deemed potentially controversial. The EMG notifies the service provider HUB (i.e., the DIH involved in the experiment) about any findings as early as possible. No decision will be made, so the very broad definition of “potentially controversialis not an inhibition but helpful to reduce personal biases. The project will focus on discrimination, fairness in a more general sense (like automated decision-making for issues potentially affecting lives substantially), and stakeholder involvement in non-identifying personal data, where applicable. Recommendations could include requesting consent from stakeholders, disseminating information about complaint systems, or technical solutions to remove discriminating biases. Statistics on the occurrences of an absence of issues will be collected to write a report about findings, potential remedies, and the more specific experiences with actual issues, and make it available as a contribution to the public debate on data analytics usage.”  

Motivated by the positive feedback received by the whole consortium, the EMG is eager to raise further awareness of potential ethical issues arising inside the project and establish individual responsibility and a common ethical standard. Thus, its report provides an essential reference for the consortium, including the DIHs that joined the federation with the open calls and the SMEs being onboarded with the experiments. The report informs the governance of the federation. While it is natural that the execution of a large project proposal such as EUHub4Data will generate friction, one goal still on the horizon is that a future federation will have “ethics by design” built into its governance and infrastructure. Thus, learnings from the funded project phase that covers experiments on data and services as part of its open calls are essential. On the other hand, the findings underline the importance of continuous ethics monitoring, mainly due to the experimental nature and when working with large datasets.  

This document may thus provide insights for external stakeholders that want to learn from the project’s findings. As this project aims to create a prototype for a cross-sectoral data space as part of a federation of digital hubs, the resulting ethical issues should interest other related endeavours. In particular, this could be the case if they either want to use the project as a blueprint or want to build on technologies conceived by the project or which are similar (e.g., the planned Gaia-X ecosystem).   

Many ethics issues arise from the reuse of data for AI and data-driven innovation, which is challenging not only from a legal perspective but also introduces ethical challenges. As the project strives to adapt standards of trustworthy AI (defined by the EU’s High-Level Expert Group “Ethics Guidelines for Trustworthy AI” and well outlined as part of the Deliverable on Legal and Ethical Requirements of the TRUSTS Project), it may serve as a use case for further investigation. One challenge that the project addresses well is that, by involving SMEs, it moves out of the space of academic research and large industries, which to some degree, have already spent efforts on the topic and established structures. Notably, we were surprised at how challenging a common understanding of regulatory requirements like the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) can still be. This is important as legal frameworks are fast-moving in the domain as the basis for common ethics. 

To anybody interested in practical ethics in data innovation, we provide a preview version of the First EUHubs4Data Ethics Report for download.
The final version will be published as a public project deliverable on the CORDIS website once reviewed and accepted by the European Commission.
You may also want to check other ethics resources offered by the project due to the findings, like the FAQs on our ethics landing page and the Ethics Self-Assessment Excel Form for Data Experiments that will also be released as part of an upcoming ethics toolkit together with hands-on-training. Stay tuned!