Data Ethics and Integrity in the IT World

Program Director Randall Berry reflects on two recent articles by Northwestern MSIT Industry Advisory Board members.

By Randall Berry

One of my favorite aspects of being the director of the Master of Science in Information Technology (MSIT) program is getting to interact with the great group of dedicated IT thought leaders who make up our Industry Advisory Board (IAB).

Two members of the IAB recently shared their unique perspectives on the IT industry, and I wanted to take a few minutes to reflect on the articles and evaluate what they have to say about the MSIT program.

Kevin Glynn, who is the Chair of the IAB, recently published a piece for the MSIT program that looked back on the game-changing innovations of 2018. Additionally, he wrote a post about how "CIOs and leaders need an ethical framework to address IT issues," and it is that post I would like to discuss.

In his piece, Kevin explains the growing importance of ethics for the IT industry, and I couldn't agree more. In fact, I think the increasing use of technologies such as data analytics and artificial intelligence (AI) will only increase this need.

As Kevin explained, the technologies present today are changing the way we live our lives, and they make it possible to develop and create applications that were unthinkable just a few years ago. But Kevin feels that as these technologies and applications are being developed, few people, particularly in the IT space, are asking whether or not they should be being built in the first place.

"Few of us in IT have training in ethics and moral philosophy," Kevin wrote. "Creating an ethics framework is as foreign to IT executives as differential equations are to kindergarteners.  Perhaps we can train future technology leaders in humanities, but that won’t fix the problem today."

To assist with solving the problem, Kevin proposed an initial checklist of questions to help determine whether an idea is ethically sound. Those questions were:

  • Is this work (project) illegal in any country?
  • Does this work respect the dignity of all people?
  • Is this work something that is sustainable?
  • Does this work foster transparency, and honesty?
  • Does this work require people to think about potential harm or good to them?
  • Can I do this and tell my family about it proudly?

I think Kevin's checklist is a good framework for the industry to follow, and this idea of ethics in IT was actually one of the main topics discussed at our MSIT fall IAB meeting. It is a topic that is touched on in various places throughout our curriculum, including our Risk Management course, where the subject of ethical dimensions to risk is routinely addressed.

While Kevin focused on ethics, his fellow IAB member Naveed Asem touched on the idea of integrity-based data in this Q&A for Donnelley Financial Solutions, where he is the Chief Data and Analytics Officer. In Kevin's piece, the topic was making sure data was ethically appropriate to collect. With Naveed, he focused on the importance of making sure data is accurate.

There are many ways that data can be incorrect, such as human error, hardware failures, or malicious behavior. Data integrity refers to techniques for trying to maintain the correctness of data. With data becoming an essential driver for many business decisions, it is increasingly important that good data is used for making these decisions.

One of the primary topics Naveed focused on was AI, which currently is impacting IT across nearly every industry, including the financial industry where Naveed works. AI itself has been around for many decades, but we are now at a place where the combination of powerful computing and large amounts of data are making it feasible to implement in a large variety of different settings.

AI has clearly left the lab and is becoming a tool that is accessible to IT workers. As such, it will be a key part of the IT industry into the future. The main challenge for each industry is to figure out how to utilize AI and the vast amounts of data available in the best way for their specific industry. Doing this will require employees that are well versed in business and technology. Developing such employees is at the core of the mission of the Northwestern MSIT program.  

Randall Berry is the Director of the McCormick School of Engineering's Master of Science in Information Technology (MSIT) program at Northwestern University.