The Co-op Group shares its top tips on data ethics

Data is now a core element to a business’s performance – so how can co-ops make sure their use of it stays in line with their values?

For the last 175 years, co-operatives have been championing better and fairer ways of doing business, setting high ethical and sustainability standards in products, services and operations. Here, Danny McCarthy, Claire Hadfield and Kavita Mistry from the Co-op Group’s data team explain how the organisation applies these standards to data ethics.

Today at the Co-op, the values and principles of co-operation are still demonstrated in the way we source products sustainably and work with members and communities. But a growing ethical consideration is the way we collect, use and share data, whether it’s the names and addresses of our members, shopper habits, or the biometric information obtained through CCTV.

Data is increasingly a core part of business infrastructure and performance, and at the same time customers are growing more aware of – and more concerned about – how data about them is used. At the Co-op, one of our missions is to be trusted with data: it is in this context that the Co-op data team has been pioneering an approach for data ethics in the design of new products and services.

What is data ethics?

Data ethics describes the value judgements and approaches made when generating, analysing and disseminating data. It’s about doing the right thing with data and considering the impacts for people whose data you hold.

How do we implement data ethics?

There is no specific UK law for data ethics at present, but organisations such as the Open Data Institute (ODI) have developed robust approaches for organisations to identify and manage data ethics considerations. The ODI’s Data Ethics Canvas, for example, is designed to help identify potential ethical issues associated with a data project or activity – and then identify the steps needed to act ethically. The Co-op data team has successfully trialled the use of the Canvas with teams who are designing new digital products and services.

Related: ‘We treat the data like we treat the members themselves’: ICA debate

This Canvas frames 15 topics for discussion to be completed in an open workshop format which has been described by team members as ‘cathartic’. It ensures all concerns can be aired and lets the project team move at pace with confidence that they are making the right decisions for their members, colleagues and communities.

Some of the projects we have used the Canvas on include the implementation of a new application for store colleagues to help them manage shifts, the design and implementation of a new digital platform for funeral homes, and the personalisation of offers for members in our retail stores.

5 Top tips for data ethics

Tools such as the Canvas have helped the Co-op apply standards and practices for the ethical use of data within the design of our products and services. We have summarised our experiences into 5 top tips to help other co-operatives understand more about how we approach data ethics.

Protect your customers

As customers are handing over a lot of their personal data, you must ensure that this data is safeguarded rigorously. You must respect the persons potentially impacted by the data you hold. Colleagues should be encouraged to ask themselves the question: would I want this piece of data about me made public?

Less is more

You must use data in ways that are legally compliant with the consent of the disclosing party. Often data that is collected today can be useful for unpredicted purposes in the future which can exceed the original intention – less data can result in better analysis and less risk.

Be responsible

You will need to store, use and process data appropriately to meet the needs of your customers, members, committees, partners and colleagues. So you must always use controls to reduce potential risks to the persons involved. Any history of decisions made on the data should be documented and auditable.


You should actively empower colleagues to confidently challenge when they feel that data is being misused by any party and to escalate where this is evident.

Understand the limitations

You should understand the limitations of data and how this can influence decisions made. This includes the accuracy, ageing or completeness of the data, or known bias on how the data was collected.

Related: Credit unions and big data – key tips from Woccu conference

Useful Resources to Refer to for Best Data Practices

The Open Data Institute’s Data Ethics Canvas

Coop User guide for using the canvas

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) is The UK’s independent authority set up to uphold information rights in the public interest. Here you can find useful resources, such as Data Protection Impact Assessment Templates, Privacy Notices Templates, Campaign Materials and Codes of Practice.

 The ICO’s Your Data Matters

The ICO’s Guidance for Organisations pages