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Ben Hawes

Benchmark Programme Director

14 Oct 2019


Ethics and enterprise in a world driven by geospatial data

The proliferation of location data is giving businesses and governments cause to deal with new responsibilities.

More location data, and more granular location data, is being generated every second of every day. This data is improving services and the invention of new ones, because its changing what we know about the world.

And it changes what the rest of the world knows about us. That knowledge offers vast potential for greater efficiency in how resources are used, and for meeting the needs of communities and individuals better.

From each wave of the digital revolution and step-change in technology we learn of new risks: to privacy, transparency, fairness, governance and competition. And that in turn means new responsibilities: for governments, for businesses, and for people who work with data.

Many professionals working in geospatial data were not trained to explore the varied ethical questions they now encounter. Many people and organisations who have responsibilities for governance, fair treatment and transparency in different sectors are not well prepared for how ubiquitous location data is changing how they need to deliver their responsibilities.


The Benchmark Initiative

We want to see more applications of geospatial data working in the public interest, which is why we’ve launched Benchmark.

Benchmark is a new, year-long initiative, delivered by Geovation and supported by Omidyar Network, to explore the risks raised by location data, to address those risks with professionals and the wider public. We aim to support innovations addressing risks and allow the benefits of location data to be captured.

This is the right time to raise the profile of good practice in this area. Use of internet and consumer data is now under strong scrutiny after Cambridge Analytica. But there has been much less attention to how geospatial data is used, even though more and more services rely on it.

Location data can be crucial for bringing together different data-sets, and connecting people, places, objects and events. The way that geospatial data can connect and create insights - into our movement, activities, fears and desires – raises many questions.


Who’s watching me now?

Media investigations – like the New York Times examination of the location tracking industry – have revealed the scale of apps tracking location, and how this information is passed on to companies paying for it. Permissions only cover some of these uses. Many go on with little or no meaningful consent.

Researchers have shown that anonymised data can often be re-identified, and that location data can be the key to doing that.

But even after these investigations, few people know where their location data is going, or what it’s being used for. Data privacy regulation – including GDPR – has only begun to touch on location data as a critical category. 

We know from online experiences that companies do not run complex applications of consumer data only to analyse and predict our behavior. They want to change what we do.

Are we ready for location-enabled applications to influence what we do and where we go in the physical world: the city, the street, even our own homes? It’s not clear that we have properly been asked if we are happy with that.


New services, new markets, new value

Every category of data that becomes more readily available - at scale or relating to individuals, or both - opens up new markets, and gives new power in existing markets, to those who can use that data.

Uber’s accumulated data now has the potential to help cities plan new infrastructure and manage traffic. Several cities are demanding access to Uber’s data as the condition for allowing Uber to operate.

The more location data is used, the more questions arise, about who should benefit and how.

Uber is only one data source for city governments around the world, who also draw on sensor and mobile network data to improve their decisions. Urban planning and management are supposed to influence how we move in cities, but when does that get too intrusive, too controlling?

It matters who has this data, how they use it, and in whose interests. Towns, cities and countries around the world now want to use data about how people move locally, to support local economic growth for everyone. Should they have to buy that data about their own streets from global internet companies?


Supporting responsible innovation

The Benchmark event series will raise the profile of these challenges, and more, with the help of senior leaders and subject experts.

What’s important is to show that location data can be used responsibly, and to promote both the ethical principles and the solutions that make that happen.

The Benchmark Entrepreneur-in-Residence programme will support the development of these practical solutions. Our entrepreneurs will deliver practical, real-world applications and services that advance understanding of these risks and deliver solutions to specific challenges in using location data responsibly.

I hope you will follow our work and get involved. If you have a challenge we should look at, a solution, or just want to share your views, please get in touch.


Further Reading


Meet the Team

The Benchmark Iniative is delivered by Geovation with support from the Omidyar Network.   ...

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Introducing the Benchmark Initiative

Benchmark is an exciting new initiative exploring the challenges and solutions in the responsible us...

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Geovation Announces the Benchmark Initiative

9 October 2019 / For Immediate Release Geovation Announces Year-Long Benchmark Initiative to Explo...

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