Make ethical decisions around data collection and sharing during COVID-19

Written by Lydia Clougherty Jones


COVID-19 has elevated and expanded the demand for data collection, use and sharing. For example, in Canada, government leaders are facing pressure to develop a national contact-tracing app to monitor cases across the country. Across the world, similar initiatives are being rolled out, leveraging location and health data to try and slow the spread of the virus. 

The coronavirus response calls for urgent and unusual measures in regards to data collection, use and sharing. However, your decisions as an IT leader during this time must adhere to data ethics. If not, you risk causing more harm than good.

Ethics are about promoting the good and avoiding the bad, which is exactly what you should be trying to achieve when dealing with COVID-19. IT leaders are playing a pivotal role in guarding against data misuse through the pandemic crisis. But it is important to avoid falling into the trap of being too single-minded or outcome-determinative in decision making around the collection, use and sharing of data to combat the crisis and the data dilemmas that arise from it.

Balance the need for swift and decisive action with ethical data collection, use and sharing by following three steps. This will curb data misuse, especially from unknown data reuse and resharing, and maintain business value resiliency.

Align data sharing with ethical values

Your data sharing needs to align with your core ethical values and business priorities to safeguard against data misuse. Lend your data assets or share data with others if appropriate, both in commercial enterprise and government.

In parallel, limit the number of people who have access to your own data, but do not stand in the way of data access. If appropriate, prepare to discard the information you have collected once it has served its limited purpose. Consider seeking advice from your application leaders on what digital trust technologies are readily available to control your collection, use and sharing of data.

Incorporate multiple perspectives for critical decision-making

Collaborating with others allows you to gain multiple perspectives on data dilemmas that impact employees, customers and governmental entities. Ethical decision making should start with critical thinking, then incorporate different moral reasoning perspectives, considering alternative outcomes. Engage people from across the organization, including legal, marketing, sales, operations and finance. Ideally, the group should reflect different, and even competing, cognitive styles, temperaments and cultural values.

Combining different styles of thinking and perspectives leads to a more balanced and measured way of deciding whether to collect data, how to use it and with whom to share it. It also helps set the right conditions to mitigate data misuse from reuse and resharing. 

In addition, regularly review the global examples of data dilemmas from COVID-19 resource materials and the news with respect to work-from-home (WFH) employees, customer nonperformance and government surveillance, among others. Discuss these with other leaders in your organization who have different perspectives regarding employee privacy and leniency for customers who may need extra time or need to be excused from contractual performance.

Reevaluate temporary measures and return to normal where possible

Temporary measures include actions like local telcos that aggregate users’ movement to help with contact tracing or other forms of monitoring, or provincial leaders in Saskatchewan setting up a highway checkpoint to screen for drivers heading north to limit the virus spreading through travel.  

Those examples demonstrate that drastic times call for drastic measures. But ensure temporary measures around data collection, use and sharing stay temporary. Once the crisis is over, identify and retain what you have learned. 

IT leaders can learn more about how to lead organizations through the disruption of coronavirus in the Gartner coronavirus resource center, a collection of complimentary Gartner research and webinars to help organizations respond, manage, and prepare for the rapid spread and global impact of COVID-19.

Lydia Clougherty Jones is a Research Director in the Data and Analytics Group at Gartner. She covers data value creation and data and analytics strategy, while also focusing on data sharing, data monetization, data ethics, privacy as business strategy, data for good, and blockchain smart contracts.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada
Gartner, Inc. (NYSE: IT) delivers actionable, objective insight to executives and their teams. Our expert guidance and tools enable faster, smarter decisions and stronger performance on an organization’s mission critical priorities. To learn more, visit

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