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Denise McKenzie

Benchmark Programme Director

11 Aug 2020


Guest blog - The ethical framework: Ethics by design

Below is a blog post on the work by our great partners at Geonovum in The Netherlands. 

Author: Emily Daemen

The story behind the ethical framework

When the Dutch Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sports announced that it wanted to design an app
to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, the Dutch media erupted with questions and concerns. Experts (and every Tom, Dick and Harry) expressed their opinions on various platforms about the “corona-app”: an app, designed on behalf of the government, to warn users of potential contact with the virus by potentially using their personal location data. Personal location data include all data identifying where people are and how they move.

The National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI) executive committee in the Netherlands, Geonovum aims to improve the government’s interactions with spatial data by developing and managing spatial data standards. Geonovum was already developing an ethical framework for the use of location data, but COVID-19 placed a sense of urgency in completing this framework. We already had input from a workshop on ethics and location data, held in January. We used this input to enrich our compilation of existing ethical codes. Based on our findings, we composed 10 core ethical values for a responsible collection, use and assessment of personal location data. The core ethical values form a tool to facilitate ‘ethics by design’ in any project, process, product or service that involves (personal) location data.

An English consultation version of our ethical framework is available at:

The ethical framework is designed for data users, initiators, executive teams, clients, directors and supervisors. We hope they will consider it as an ethical compass they can easily rely on at all times.

The framework also functions as a tool to stimulate conversations with stakeholders within the geo-professional field, the government, knowledge institutions and the business community about the development and use of shared ethical standards for the responsible use of location data.

The consultation version is a working draft. It still needs to be enriched with examples, reflections
and further comments. If any relevant examples that may be suitable for us to include in our
framework come to mind, then please let us know! Based on an initial scan of the ongoing feedback, the document will undergo a significant transformation.

Your feedback is therefore very valuable: we are eager to hear how the next version can become even more user-friendly.

The ethical framework
Our inventory of well-established ethical codes demonstrates that the core ethical values are largely universal. The classification and formulation of the values may differ, but the principles can be distilled into the following ten core values:

1. Purpose compatibility, purpose limitation and a focus on social value
2. Active transparency
3. Data holders’ and data users’ accountability and responsibility
4. Engagement of relevant stakeholders
5. Protection of privacy and security
6. Establishment of and compliance with minimum ethical standards
7. Compliance with the law
8. Preservation of the quality of the data
9. Reflecting reality and inclusivity in data
10. Respecting and protecting human dignity

Further elaborations and explanations of each value can be found in the consultation version of the ethical framework. Even though the principles and values are universal, it is important to refer back to the concept of: “ethics by design”. In practice, our framework ought to be applied with care and diligence to each situation: Copy paste is waste when it comes to ethics.

If you have not read our ethical framework yet please do so before continuing, as the next section
dives into the feedback we have received so far. We appreciate your thoughts and feelings towards the framework as a relatively blank canvass, without input from others.

Feedback on the ethical framework

The ethical framework has received a warm and enthusiastic welcome. We were pleased to see many reactions emphasising the urgency for this framework.

The biggest challenge we now face, is to make the ethical values and principles practical. We want to provide concrete actions for those interacting with the data, whilst also considering all unique
situations. We are proud to hear various institutions are already applying the framework in
conversations and workshops on data ethics in the workplace. As a source of inspiration, the
framework is therefore already rather successful. However, our feedback providers see potential
(and so do we) for a document with more authority.

The feedback has pointed out a lack of clarity throughout our framework: the core values should be more distinctly defined from one another, and our focus group currently lacks focus. We also ought to separate law from ethics when elaborating on our core values. One of the difficulties we already foresee is deciding to what extent the law should be included in our framework (the law sets a minimum standard for most principles, but we want to avoid a legal analysis). The opinions provided by the feedback differ.

To be continued ...

The processing of the feedback is now in full swing. Furthermore, we intend on making the framework more practical for clients, project managers, data specialists and other relevant stakeholders who use (personal) location data, by inviting them to workshops. The workshops will
provide a space for the core values to be applied in a number of concrete and current use-cases.

The use-cases cover a variety of themes, including field monitoring and subversion.
We want to involve as many colleagues as possible in this entire process and therefore see no reason to limit ourselves to the Netherlands. Our collaboration with the Benchmark Initiative and the American Geographical Society has so far been very fruitful and inspiring. We have greatly enjoyed their workshops and definitely encourage you to get involved with their initiative too!

In short, as a reference to our ethical framework, please join us in taking ethics off the walls across the world.


A note from the Benchmark Team: It has been great to work with our colleagues at Geonovum and we have also benefited from the insights they have shared. Our collaboration has confirmed that the ethical use of location data is a truly a global challenge and one that we intend to help address through connected and shared resources. We would encourage you to review and provide feedback on the Geonovum work as it will in turn support our own work at the Benchmark Initiative.


Further Reading


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