The Geospatial Commission was established in 2018 as an expert committee in the Cabinet Office responsible for setting the UK’s geospatial strategy. In March this year it launched a Public Dialogue to gather citizens’ views on the ethics of location data use, with support from UK Research and Innovation’s Sciencewise programme.
Why a public dialogue now?
In June 2020, the Commission published a five year UK Geospatial Strategy, setting out how the UK will unlock the power of location data and, as part of this, is committed to publishing guidance on location data ethics. The public dialogue will be part of the evidence that informs this guidance.
Geospatial data, also known as ‘location data’, is the record of what we do, and where we do it. It is used to describe data that represents where people or objects are in relation to a particular location. We utilise this data all the time, for example, when we track a delivery using mobile phones, or when we use our smart watches to gain useful health insights.
On an individual level, it helps us to stay fit and on a global level it enables us to track the spread of diseases. This type of data is not new – it was famously used by John Snow in the 19th century to map cholera outbreaks in London.
Many of the ethical questions around geospatial data will be the same as for other types of data and there are existing principles for the responsible use of data, such as the Data Ethics Framework. However, there are some features of location data, including its ubiquity, its level of detail and some of its applications, that may raise additional ethical questions. As location technology develops, so too does its ability to gather more insights about people and their interactions with their surroundings.
As well as the misuse of location data, we must also consider the ethical implications of its missed use. Not using location data could have real-world negative impacts by weakening our decision-making on both an individual and societal level. For example, without contemporary data on where common traffic accidents occur, we may be unable to make informed decisions on how to adapt roads to improve driver safety.
Through this public dialogue, we hope to understand how people can use geospatial data responsibly. This will help the UK to unlock the power of location data for economic, social and environmental benefit while taking into account important ethical considerations.
How will the dialogue be structured?
The dialogue process is being delivered by public dialogue and data specialists, respectively Traverse and the Ada Lovelace Institute. An Oversight Group is providing expert support and quality assurance from a diversity of views from the public, private and academic sectors.
The dialogue will engage with around 85 members of the public from across the UK, plus five specifically impacted groups: women who have experienced abuse, migrants and refugees, black British people, digitally excluded people, and disabled people.
Participants will be encouraged to develop and express their views on the issues around ethical principles, privacy and the conditions for public trust. These discussions will be facilitated through the use of online workshops and activities including chat forums, surveys, polls and idea boards.
This approach will provide in-depth insights into the public’s awareness and perception of geospatial data ethics.
How will the outputs be used?
The outputs of the dialogue, due to be delivered by the end of 2021, will give us insight into public perceptions of the opportunities, challenges and ethical considerations around location data use and its applications.
It will also inform the Geospatial Commission’s future policy work including informing the government’s forthcoming guidance on how to unlock value from location data while mitigating ethical and privacy risks, ensuring compliance with legal principles and retaining the trust of citizens.
Find out more
For further information on the dialogue, please contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Updates from the Geospatial Commission can be found here.