Public tells Geospatial Commission: ‘Location data use must be transparent’

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For the potential of location data to be unlocked, the general public wants the collection and use of such data to be transparent and accountable, according to research by the Geospatial Commission.

Between June and September 2021, 85 members of the UK public were involved in a series of online workshops and activities to gather their views on what trustworthy and ethical uses of location data look like.

The participants shared their perspectives towards location data use and reflected on the benefits, concerns, opportunities and challenges it raises.

Participants considered information about how and why location data can be used, and what governance exists around it. They also heard from data scientists, academics and industry experts.

The research suggests four components of ethical and trustworthy location data use:

  • Intent to benefit society: participants thought that why location data is used and who benefits from it are important, and that benefits to members of the public or wider society should be prioritised.
  • Effective accountability: participants thought data collectors should be accountable to regulators and data subjects, with consequences for breaches or misuse, and they questioned whether current governance is effective in achieving this.
  • Accessible transparency: participants wanted data collectors to communicate in an accessible way what location data will be used for, who will have access, and how it will be stored, so people can make informed choices and ensure accountability.
  • Enable agency: participants want more genuine ways to consent to and participate in ongoing data storage and use, as well as greater choice over how their data is used.

Thalia Baldwin, director of the Geospatial Commission, said: “The UK Geospatial Strategy recognises that society can only continue to benefit from the widespread use of location data and its future opportunities if location data is used in a way that retains public confidence.

“Enabling innovation through improved access to location data will remain a priority. Innovations to date have given industry and governments the tools needed to take on the greatest global challenges, from protecting our planet from the impact of climate change, through to coordinating a public health response to the covid-19 pandemic.

“We will continue our programme of work to explore the opportunities and how we operationalise the findings of the report, including what more transparency would look like in practice to move the public from feeling like data subjects to being empowered data citizens.”

The Geospatial Commission’s research broadly echoes the findings from Sopra Steria’s recent research into ensuring the national digital twin is ethical. It found that:

  • clear, long-term leadership must be agreed and developed for the national digital twin in a manner that brings together industry, academia, government and civil society with the aim of agreeing terms, setting standards and creating guidelines regarding ethics;
  • processes must be developed for stakeholder and civil society engagement with the development of the national digital twin and use of digital twins; and
  • an ethics board for the national digital twin should be created, with representation from across industries, academia, government and civil society.
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