ELSI-Task-Force for the National Research Programme “Big Data”


Many current and future big data applications raise questions on ethical, legal and social issues. The acceptability of big data solutions crucially depends on the proper handling of these issues.

Portrait (completed research project)

The societal acceptability of big data solutions depends on the proper handling of the ethical, legal and social issues (ELSI) that those technologies raise. Several projects within NRP 75 explicitly deal with ELSI topics, but mostly from specific perspectives. Furthermore, new ethical, legal and social issues may be raised in the course of the research of other NRP 75 projects, for which the technology-oriented projects may lack expertise or resources. Finally, the NRP 75 has a distinct need in having access to resources and expertise related to big data ELSI with respect to the dissemination of the results of NRP 75. In order to tackle all these challenges, an ELSI Task Force has set up an institutional structure and decision-making procedures for allocating ELSI expertise and resources within NRP 75. The Task Force has consulted projects, organised teaching events and summarised main ELSI challenges in a White Paper.


In 2017, the NRP 75 “Big Data” started its five-year term. The programme included 34 projects that sought to provide foundations for the effective and appropriate use of big data. The projects focussed on foundational issues of computing and information technology, on big data applications in various areas of society and on the effects of big data applications on the society. Most of these projects have ethical, legal and social implications.


The ELSI cross cutting activity intended to set up an institutional structure and decision-making procedures for allocating ELSI expertise and resources within NRP 75 for the following aims:

(1) Providing ethical, legal and social expertise for all NRP 75 projects;

(2) Supporting the NRP 75 management board when preparing dissemination activities;

(3) Stimulating knowledge exchange among the ELSI experts within NRP 75 with the aim to enhance understanding of the core ELSI topics of big data.

In the course of the project, own activities of the ELSI Task Force have been advanced, in particular related to teaching activities as well as support for outreach of the whole NRP, as long as it related to ethical, legal or social issues.


On the market, more and more tools and products include Big Data applications. Those may rise problems that require expertise in ethics, law and the social sciences. The ELSI Task Force will help to understand further the scope and consequences of these issues.


Different types of application have been created, e.g.:

  • Providing a legal assessment of a certain problem that emerged in the course of an application-oriented project;
  • Organising a workshop for increasing the sensitivity of researchers for ethical issues that emerged in the course of the project;
  • Advancing ELSI topics in data science conferences;
  • Writing an evaluation report or a White Paper on expected societal, humanistic and/or social challenges of a proposed technology.


The main results of the ELSI Task Force project can be summarised as follows:

  • One NRP 75 project and one external organisation were consulted regarding ethical and legal aspects (including one in-depth report), and one consultation report for the European Commission’s High-Level Expert Group on Artificial Intelligence has been provided.
  • The ELSI Task Force was present at three NRP 75 dissemination events.
  • Four workshops on ELSI topics were (co-)organised with a focus on training of scientists.
  • The ELSI Task Force has set up an ELSI Track & Price at the Swiss Data Science Conference 2020 and 2021.
  • Key findings were summarised in an ELSI White Paper.

Original title

Creating an ELSI Task Force for the National Research Programme 75 “Big Data”

Project leaders

Responsible of the cross cutting activity

  • PD Dr. Markus Christen, Institut für Biomedizinische Ethik und Medizingeschichte (IBME), Universität Zürich

Partners of the activity

  • Prof. Sophie Mützel, Soziologisches Seminar, Universität Luzern
  • Prof. Effy Vayena, Institut für Translationale Medizin, ETH, Zürich
  • Prof. Reto Knutti, Departement Umweltsystemwissenschaften, ETH Zürich
  • Prof. Antoinette Weibel, Forschungsinstitut für Arbeit und Arbeitswelten Universität St. Gallen
  • Prof. Bernice Elger, Institut für Bio- und Medizinethik, Uni Basel
  • Prof. Sabine Gless, Juristische Fakultät, Uni Basel
  • Prof. Mira Burri, Rechtswissenschaftliche Fakultät, Uni Luzern



Further information on this content


PD. Dr. Markus Christen Digital Society Initiative (DSI)
Universität Zürich
Rämistrasse 69 8001 Zürich