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APPs and Wearables in Research: Guidelines for Data Quality and Data Protection

Press release, February 13, 2020

Smartphones, Wearables, and other Sensors are increasingly used for scientific data collection. In addition to the methodological potential, the use of new information technology provides researchers, ethics committees, and research sponsors with new challenges. With its guideline, the German Data Forum (RatSWD) formulates recommendations for ensuring the quality of sensor-based data. It names ethical obstacles and data protection issues that must be addressed in the research process, and shows ways of quality-assuring data management.

The German Data Forum’s (RatSWD) recent publication addresses the digitisation of data collection methods in the social, behavioural, and economic sciences. It highlights considerations that should be taken into account to ensure data quality in the research process. The quality of such sensor-generated data is a key challenge, no matter if data collected by new information technologies concerns everyday life and real time whereabouts, movements, noises, lighting conditions, media use, video, or voice recordings.
Researchers should note that the sensors used are mostly designed as consumer products. Therefore, the data quality does not meet scientific requirements for reliability and validity. The German Data Forum (RatSWD) emphasizes how the data collection process, measurement accuracy, and validity should be critically examined and documented. The sensor manufacturers are also called upon to ensure transparency about the measurement accuracy, and to archive the data processing algorithms.
The high temporal and spatial resolution of the largely personal data that is collected with new information technology also raises concerns regarding research ethics and data protection. Therefore, researchers should pay special attention to suitable measures meant to ensure the anonymity of study participants; this concerns pseudonymisation strategies, the coarsening of data, the distortion of voices, and data economy standards. The protection of highly private contexts should also be ensured. The publication also addresses how third-party data and illegal behaviour of study participants should be handled. Thereby, suitable ways to gather the informed consent of observed individuals are essential and are presented in the publication.
New methods of data collection often lead to large (raw) data volumes with sensitive information. Therefore, new challenges to be addressed concern also data storage, preparation and provision for secondary use, and the management of metadata. The publication makes suggestions on how data management can be implemented in accordance with data protection and research ethics standards.

With this Output, the German Data Forum (RatSWD) is aiming at researchers and students who already use the discussed data collection methods, or plan to use new IT in the future, as well as politicians and companies that utilise new technologies. The report also supports ethics committees and research sponsors in the assessment of corresponding projects. The full report is available for free on the German Data Forum (RatSWD) website: https://doi.org/10.17620/02671.47.

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Established in 2004, the German Data Forum (Rat für Sozial- und Wirtschaftsdaten, RatSWD) is an independent council. It advises the German federal government and the federal states (Länder) in matters concerning the research data infrastructure for the empirical social, behavioural, and economic sciences. The German Data Forum (RatSWD) has 16 members. Membership consists of eight elected representatives of the social, behavioural, and economic sciences and eight appointed representatives of Germany’s most important data producers. The German Data Forum (RatSWD) offers a forum for dialogue between researchers and data producers, who jointly issue recommendations and position papers. The council furthers the development of a research infrastructure that provides researchers with flexible and secure access to a broad range of data. The German Data Forum (RatSWD) has accredited 34 research data centres and fosters their interaction and collaboration.