//The view from a regulator in a public dialogue process

The view from a regulator in a public dialogue process

Sciencewise is grateful to Matthew Rice, Senior Policy Officer Innovation at the Information Commissioner’s Office, for this blog reflecting on his role on the Oversight Group for the Geospatial Commission dialogue looking at the ethics of location data.

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) welcomed the opportunity to participate in the Geospatial Commission’s Public Dialogue on Location Data Ethics. The exercise has demonstrated the value in exploring complex topics with the public by investing in deliberative processes, including building up the public’s knowledge of an issue. As the regulator for the use of personal data, which includes geolocation data where it relates to individuals, the dialogue has given us meaningful insight into how the public views the issue of location data and the role that we play in ensuring public trust in this issue.

The value of dialogue is only revealed by ensuring that a diverse range of voices are present, that materials and knowledge are on hand to improve participants understanding, and that you are ready to hear things that may challenge settled views within a policy area.

Diverse group of voices

Dialogues can be particularly valuable in bringing the views of specifically impacted groups to the forefront. This dialogue’s effort to consult marginalised groups is particularly impressive. Creating space for these experiences shows a thoughtfulness that should be encouraged in further dialogues.

This need for diversity should also include finding those critical friends within academia and civil society who will challenge some of the foundational views of a topic. This can draw out the tensions and inform where long held beliefs begin to fall away, or where there is a practical gap in a regulatory principle and how it operates in practice.

In the context of geospatial data, it is vital to recognise that we are often facing questions of fundamental human rights. The use of geospatial data speaks to the privacy of the individual, but also of freedom of association and assembly. Dialogue, when designed for a diverse range of voices acts as a necessary check to our understanding and helps direct us as a regulator to better understand what the public are concerned about within these issues. Without the voice of individuals, policy processes risk confirming biases held within organisations.

These ingredients, finding a diverse range of voices, looking at ways to bring in views from outside of your core stakeholders, and opening yourself to challenge are all key aspects of the ICO’s current major listening exercise.

Overcoming barriers to understanding

There might be an assumption that the public is not interested in topics considered niche or technical such as geospatial data, and that a dialogue would fail to provide any meaningful insight. This sort of thinking risks creating a system where policy is created despite the view of the public, rather than in dialogue with it.

It is important to recognise when a topic contains complexity, but only so that you can ensure that you invest time in providing suitable information to people to allow them to express their views. The methods adopted in the dialogue to respond to this complexity are straightforward, but effective: provide fact-based research to participants, encourage their own participant-led research, and workshop-based discussions, among other activities.

Trust and transparency

To build trust in the use of data for innovation it is important to invest time in communicating the opportunities and explain the purpose and value of the data. Following the dialogue process, the participants recorded an increase in people’s feeling that the use of location data is positive for society.

Transparency is a cornerstone of data protection law. It compels organisations using data to explain to people what is happening with their data. That transparency can lead to individuals feeling comfortable, and more positive about the use of their data, as this dialogue demonstrates.

Role of rules and regulators in the digital economy

This dialogue, while set up to inform the Geospatial Commission’s strategy, has provided the Information Commissioner with valuable insight not just on geolocation data but on how the public views our role in regulating this issue. People want more accessible information about data security, they want more direct lines of accountability.,They want to know that where organisations fail to meet data protection law standards, that a regulator will hold them to account. They also want to see data use explained, drawing on examples such as food hygiene rating systems.

We also gained insight into where gaps may exist between the principles underpinned by the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), and the practice. The dialogue participants talked about the wish to have choice without burdens as key areas of importance for them. Participants used the example of cookie banners as a system that was meant to provide meaningful user choice but in practice has failed to deliver on that.

This is not just a feeling about geospatial data but a comment on how they view the digital economy. It sets a marker for those developing new apps for gathering data, and a target for regulators to put greater thought into what principles of choice and agency look like in practice.

The dialogue process has provided greater insight than we had anticipated. Not only for geolocation data but also feelings on the digital economy. Additionally, it has provided insight into how we as the ICO are viewed and where there may be practical gaps in the principles-based framework that GDPR provides.

The Geospatial Commission’s guidance on the ethical use of location data takes forward the findings from the dialogue. The ICO looks forward to further work on these issues to ensure the public maintains trust in the use of geolocation data.

Photo by Tamas Tuzes-Katai on Unsplash.