Building Ethical Leaders in Data Science with the Notre Dame Edge

Author: Roger Woodard

Woman looks a laptop while images of graphs and charts display on a projection screen behind her.

Data science is a dynamic and fast-moving field. The almost-daily arrival of new methods and capabilities brings complex ethical challenges. Across industries, data scientists who can navigate this high-velocity environment in an ethical manner are urgently in demand.

Notre Dame’s online MS-ACMS Data Science program prepares future leaders by weaving ethics and social-good questions throughout our rigorous technical curriculum, in keeping with our commitment to be a force for good in the world. As data science continues to take shape as a field, both industry and the University have a leading role to play in crafting the profession’s ethical framework and training ethical thinkers and practitioners.

Why are ethics in data science so important?

At a time when algorithms influence, openly or without our knowledge, so many decisions in our lives, it’s imperative that data scientists understand not only how to create effective models and generate actionable insights, but also how to think critically about the ethical implications of their work. This must include considering the consequences of their analysis on individuals and groups.

In many industries, algorithms are trade secrets or “black boxes” in which the process of analysis is hidden from view. Ethical hazards can also emerge through ignorance (e.g. “I never thought of that”) or faulty process (e.g. using a dataset of only men’s health data but generalizing insights or claims to all people). While algorithms and models can be incredibly powerful drivers of innovation, they can also encode bias, reaffirm stereotypes, or assert preferences.

In a recent article from The New York Times, author and mathematician Cathy O’Neil implores universities to take a larger role in training data scientists to confront the ethical dilemmas technology presents, such as “hiring algorithms that seem to filter out people with mental health disorders, sentencing algorithms that fail twice as often for black defendants as for white defendants, statistically flawed public teacher assessments or oppressive scheduling algorithms.”

At Notre Dame, students in our online MS-ACMS Data Science program encounter ethical questions, philosophical challenges, and social-good projects throughout the curriculum, not just in our signature ethics course. When our students come together in live immersions, we gather around ethical questions, working as a community to argue with nuance, contextualize our inquiry, and build principled, human-centered insights. Our ongoing partnership with AT&T, moreover, allows our students to learn data science ethics in areas such as data privacy and data security directly alongside the company’s senior leadership, including Bill O’Hern, Senior Vice President, Chief Security Officer and Jose Agundez, AVP Technology, Big Data, and Business Development.

By arming our graduates with the Notre Dame Edge, to think critically, act ethically, and have a deep awareness of the social context for data-driven decision making, our program prepares leaders who will shape the field into the future of data science.

Download our white paper to learn more about the ethical questions and responsibilities impacting data science.