Verslag Data-Date: Digital Ethicist


Creating ethical and responsible digital technologies is often easier said than done. It requires a reflective and structured process and a different way of approaching the development of the technology. One way organisations have dealt with this, is by hiring a digital ethicist. This person is responsible for supporting the development of ethical technologies, processes and cultures within an organisation.

Should your organisation hire a digital ethicist as well? Perhaps you would like to transition towards ethical innovation in another way, for example by ensuring one or more employees acquire some of the competencies needed to create responsible AI. For this (English-spoken) Data-Date we invited professional (digital) ethics consultants and a health innovator to discuss the role of the digital ethicist and how organisations can make a start in implementing ethical technology development processes.

Nederlandse samenvatting

Hoe kan je als organisatie verantwoorde AI-systemen ontwikkelen? Dit is een vraag waar het Kenniscentrum Data & Maatschappij zich al een tijdje actief mee bezighoudt, onder andere aan de hand van een competentiemodel voor de maatschappelijke competenties voor een datagedreven toekomst. Het model komt voort uit de functieomschrijving van de Digital Ethicist die we al eerder publiceerden. In deze Engelstalige Data-Date hebben we een aantal digital ethicists samengebracht en discussiëren we met hen over wat deze rol nu precies inhoudt en welke competenties hierbij belangrijk zijn.

De belangrijkste inzichten die we hebben opgedaan:

  • Digital ethicists zijn eerder coaches dan scheidsrechters. Hun taak is om een organisatie te begeleiden in de transitie naar meer ethische technologie ontwikkeling.

  • Digital ethicists zijn een spin in het web en bewegen zich door alle lagen van de organisatie. Ze zijn verbonden met heel verschillende betrokkenen om ethische waarden op te stellen en te implementeren.

  • Ook zonder een digital ethicist, kan je als organisatie al belangrijke stappen zetten. Dat kan door je eigen waarden vast te stellen en te volgen, verschillende stakeholders te betrekken in het ontwikkelingsproces. Ook door een cultuur te creëren waar werknemers zich aangemoedigd voelen om zich uit te spreken als ze het niet eens zijn met de keuzes die worden gemaakt binnen een project, zet je een stap richting meer ethische technologie.

The digital ethicist & a KCDS competency model for a data-driven future

Jonne van Belle and Willemien Laenens started the session by introducing the work of the Knowledge Centre Data & Society on the digital ethicist and the competency model for a data-driven future. Jonne explained how organisations are struggling with operationalizing ethics into their way of working. A digital ethicist is a job profile which can support organisations in making this transition towards more ethical innovation in a way that is sensitive to the exact context and process of that organisation. The digital ethicist can offer support both on strategic, organisational level and within specific projects. They are a bit of a chameleon, or AI-translator, who moves through all layers of the organisation.

However, it might not be feasible for an organisation to hire a digital ethicist. The Knowledge Centre is therefore also working on a competency model in which the specific skills and knowledge that employees need to have in order to develop or use trustworthy data-driven systems are listed. The focus is specifically on the ethical, legal and societal aspects of data & AI. The competency model targets HR-professionals, since they are required to have a good idea of what type of competencies are present in the organisation. And thus also, which skills or knowledge are lacking. The model was developed in co-creative workshops and will function as a self-assessment tool and a conversation starter between a (new) employee and their (HR-)manager.

The Digital Ethicist

Roos de Jong is working as a Senior Consultant within the Digital Ethics Team of Deloitte and gave a general, but extensive, overview of the tasks and ways of working of a digital ethicist. She opened by pointing out that the media often pick up on the negative aspects of data & AI. A digital ethicist can help both in preventing negative publicity and in thinking about the possibilities and ambitions an organisation might have from different perspectives (customer, employees, product, society). These discussions need to be taken into the boardroom to make sure resources are available and the needs and values of the organisation are clear. It is the task of the digital ethicist to adapt and adjust these C-level decisions and to implement them in all layers of the organisation. This involves awareness creation, training, connecting people and contexts and co-creating a new way of working in which everyone has a role to play.

The 7 commandments of being a digital ethicist

Edwin Borst is an independent consultant in Ethics & Technology, who is involved in the Dutch AI Coalition, amongst other engagements. Edwin presented the seven commandments for digital ethicists:

  1. You shall understand how we are interwoven with technology: we create tech, but tech also influences us.

  2. You shall not know what is the right thing to do: digital ethicists are not referees, but coaches: they support the organisation and facilitate the embedding of values into their technology.

  3. You shall involve stakeholders: using a methodology such as guidance ethics, you can learn a lot from the practical knowledge of your different and diverse stakeholders.

  4. You shall have a constructive perspective on technology: the digital ethicist will propose a set of actions to take for an ethical dilemma. There is never just one solution.

  5. You shall understand the importance of an ethical culture and be able to implement and measure it in an organisation, using for example the integrated culture model of KPMG.

  6. You shall have a diversified toolbox and know which tool to apply in what situation.

  7. You shall be a sheep with 5 legs: meaning that you are a spider in the web, and need to be able to work and move in different contexts and with different kinds of people.

One important competency according to Edwin: learn how to work together with coders and developers.

Change the way you use technology for good

Dr. Kevin Macnish is currently working as a Digital Ethics Consulting Manager at Sopra Steria, but has also worked in academia for quite some time. In his work as a digital ethicist, Kevin works both internally for Sopra Steria and externally as a consultant. His job is to ensure projects are ethical and to mitigate harms and maximize benefits for users and society. He worked, for example, on a project of ethical debt management in which they developed a service to help people to determine how best to repay their debts. Ethics played an important role as they were dealing with vulnerable users. Compared to academia, in business the focus is more on solving problems instead of finding them. This creates a directly visible impact of the work you are doing as an ethicist.

May the data be with you!

Robin Decoster is working for the research project ZInn, short for Zorginnovatie (Health Innovation) within Odisee. Robin took a more applied approach and pointed out the challenges and opportunities of data within the healthcare context, and what competencies are needed to work with them. He started off with the importance of digital citizenship in which everyone feels empowered to actively and responsibly take part in society. He referred specifically to algorithmic bias which can exclude or damage underrepresented people. Working with data and algorithms, especially in a healthcare context, requires people to be aware of these issues and to apply the technology in an appropriate and ingenious way, making sure to involve different partners in the development process.


Is digital ethics on the agenda of organisations? And why? Most digital ethicists start working in a firm because the C-level is aware of a risk or has seen a problem in the sector that needs to be solved. This is opposed to the idea that companies want to do good, especially in the private sector. Despite this, there is more and more external pressure from consumers and employees to shop or work with an ethical company. The best way to check if an organisation is ethical, as a consultant or employee, is to see if C-level already lives by ethical values and to check if everyone on the workfloor is able to voice ethical concerns.

How to best integrate ethics? Where to start? Everyone should have a basic understanding of digital ethics, especially management. It is best to start small, follow for example an online course on AI ethics and look at the current functions in your organisation: how can they become a bit more digitally ethical. Just involving and including different perspectives and stakeholders is already a first great step to be more aware of the impact of your technology. Bigger organisations can also work with ethical boards in which different perspectives are included.

What are essential competencies for digital ethics? The digital ethicist is a new role, so there is not yet a fixed idea of the needed skills and competencies, but some of the most important ones according to the panel:

  • To communicate transparently and open

  • Being able to speak and listen to all audiences

  • To be the glue between all stakeholders

  • To be courageous and to not be afraid to challenge the management when needed

These are all competencies which are not only important for digital ethics, but for anyone.

What do we take home from this Data-Date?

We have learned a lot during about the new role and competencies of the digital ethicist:

  • The digital ethicist is a coach and not a referee. Their task is to support an organisation in the transition towards more ethical technology development. Not to say yes or no to certain decisions.

  • The digital ethicist is a spider in the web and moves through all layers of the organisation, in conversation with all different partners, in order to define and implement ethical values into their way of working.

  • Even without hiring a digital ethicist, any organisation can start small by determining and following their own values, involving different stakeholders and creating a culture in which employees are encouraged to speak up when they don’t agree with the direction a project is taking.

(Re)watch the Data-Date session