Data ethics principles and processes are useful, but they are often of limited use when it comes to addressing the social and environmental harms of the data economy. This post is about using creative R&D to build data technologies that embed a different set of values from the ground up, balancing exploratory with experimental approaches to prove what works.

Illustration of a hand holding a box of binary numbers.
Illustration of a hand holding a box of binary numbers.
Franziska Barczyk, MIT Technology Review

There’s a reason that data trusts are named one of the 10 breakthrough technologies of 2021 — they are a way of challenging the status quo. Governments and companies have mishandled data time and again. GDPR and other data protection regimes have technically given power back to the people, but in practice, individuals can’t be expected to take responsibility for evaluating abstract and unknown risks every time we want to look something up online. All too often, clunky data consent boxes invite us to click ‘yes’ and hope for the best. These data protection regimes also commonly miss the fact…


It’s been a while since we last updated you on the progress of the Global Mental Health Databank so here’s a quick update of where we’ve got to.

Photo by United Nations COVID-19 Response

For those who haven’t come across the project before, the Global Mental Health Databank is a two-year feasibility study commissioned by Wellcome in partnership with Sage Bionetworks and a team of researchers and young people across India, South Africa, and the UK. The purpose of the project is explore whether it’s possible to create a user-controlled databank that can enable longitudinal investigation into the ‘active ingredients’ that make interventions for anxiety and…


Networked technology has networked effects. These effects are often intangibly and recursively amplified through a system when machine learning is in use. Does human-centered design still make sense when we’re designing for AI?

This post considers some of the limitations of Human Centered Design for AI tech, and considers what happens if we think about relational design for data systems instead.

Coloured threads wound around spokes to form a network. Photo by Omar Flores on Unsplash
Coloured threads wound around spokes to form a network. Photo by Omar Flores on Unsplash
Photo by Omar Flores on Unsplash

Whenever a new bit of technology comes along, new forms of design arise accordingly. The printing press brought us graphic design and typography, the production line brought us product design, and the internet brought interaction design. More recently service design has established itself to enable interactions that take place over time. Every form of design brings a new approach and way of building interesting, useful, beautiful things. …


The author Ocean Voung recently posted about metaphors and described the work that they do beyond description. He talks about how a well-constructed metaphor leads the audience to further discoveries in the story or successfully amplifies the meaning of what is there, beyond just adding texture to an existing description.

We use metaphors all the time when we’re tealking about technology and data. The images we choose reveal how we think about and understand it, often doing the work Vuong is talking about. …


Photo by Tim Marshall on Unsplash

Since August I’ve been working with the Mental Health team at Wellcome, helping to get the mental health databank that Katie wrote about in May up and running. Here’s a quick run down of what we’re doing and who we’re doing it with.

The project is a key part of the team’s aim to find out what helps prevent or address anxiety and depression in 14–24 year olds. We want to enable researchers to answer the question of what interventions work for whom, and why. In order to do this, we need to enable the collection, storage, and use of…


Fairness and Bias

Photo by NOAA on Unsplash

Originally I trained as a designer before retraining in digital anthropology and falling backwards into working with data. In my experience, data and design are seen as pretty separate disciplines on the whole. While there may be respect between the two disciplines, as with many things arty and sciencey, they are essentially set up in opposition to each other.

User-centered design is currently the predominant design methodology for creating technology. It is efficient in enabling the understanding of everyday human problems, and the creation of empathetic designs that are intuitive and suited to users’ needs. Data science has evolved into…


The way we categorise things is often socially constructed. For example race, one of the most common demographic categories we are surrounded by, is pretty universally agreed across biology, anthropology and sociology to be a socially constructed label. So it isn’t surprising that the way we categorise ourselves affects the way we behave.

Every categorisation or classification represents a different form of being, and when we change how that form of being is described and grouped, it changes the self-conception of those in that group and their according behaviour. This is a phenomenon which Ian Hacking has termed ‘the looping…


Coldcut x On-U Sound — Outside The Echo Chamber

In his essay ‘Data before the fact’, David Rosenberg does an etymological analysis of the word ‘data’. He shows that the meaning of the word has moved from the 17th Century understanding of ‘data’ as an axiomatic premise, the tenet of an experiment, to the modern interpretation of ‘data’ as the outcome of an experiment. Basically, in 17th century data wasn’t really related to the ‘real world’, it was contextualized by the other data around it. …


The other day I was listening to an episode of Revisionist History podcast by Malcolm Gladwell about 16th Century maritime insurance and baseball doping. The connection he drew was pretty tenuous. But it was interesting.

Essentially Gladwell explores the method of Casuistry for solving ethical dilemmas for new problems. Casuistry is a process of reasoning created by the Jesuits. A very brief synopsis of this method would be that one examines this novel problem not by applying general moral principles, but by establishing a ‘standard case’ (the word casuistry derives from the Latin noun casus meaning “case” or “occurrence”), which…


Medieval cannibal

I’m a big fan of bonkers medieval stuff — who isn’t!? So I was truly delighted to find this brilliant procrastination twitter thread from the medievalist Eric Wade about all the time medieval luminary Thomas Aquinas and his pals like St Augustine spent worrying and taxonomising about the key question at the top of everyone’s list: “if our bodies are resurrected in the Last Judgment, what happens if we were eaten?”. Obviously, this made me think about data ethics, and I will tell you why.

According to Wade “[t]hey thought God would just extract the you-matter from the cannibal’s body…

Miranda Marcus

Lead Producer BBC R&D and freelance consultant with Wellcome Mental Health team. ex Open Data Institute. Interests in data, design, digital, and anthropology.

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