The UK government has a strategy to increase the use of location data – data about the location of people, events, and places. Its economists have said that this could create up to £11bn of economic benefit per year. That is an attractive goal for a government that has promised and needs economic growth.

As part of this strategy the UK government recognises the need to retain public trust in the use of location data.

That is useful and sensible. An overly simplistic focus on economic growth from collecting and using data will lead to harm to people and communities.

The body responsible for the location data strategy, the Geospatial Commission, recently published a policy paper on location data ethics with a goal of building public trust in the use of location data.

Unfortunately the paper’s analysis is incomplete and unlikely to have any real impact.

This risks harm to people and will contribute to a failure to deliver the promised £11bn/year of economic benefits. 

The paper proposes an ABC of ethical use of location data

The paper recognises that it is “vital that its use retains public trust and confidence”. It used a public dialogue, quantitive survey, and analysis from the Geospatial Commission’s team to suggest three ethical building blocks, on top of existing legislation, to help achieve this goal of public trust.

The building blocks are:

  • Accountability – Governing location data responsibly, with the appropriate oversight and security
  • Bias – Considering and mitigating different types of bias, and highlighting the positive benefits of location data
  • Clarity – Being clear about how location data will be used and the rights of individuals

Unfortunately, the paper’s analysis is incomplete

The paper’s analysis is incomplete, to provide just four examples it: 

  • has a smaller set of considerations than other geospatial ethics work
  • implicitly assumes that all people have the same capacity to make decisions
  • does not discuss ethical issues about places
  • and does not consider the business models of the organisations that collect and provide location data

There are three ethical building blocks compared to ten principles in the Locus Charter

These building blocks are a subset of the principles captured in the international Locus Charter for responsible use of location data.

As a result the proposed building blocks do not include protecting the vulnerable, protecting rights or data minimisation.

The Locus Charter has 10 principles, the Geospatial Commission covers accountability (#10), bias (#5) and adds clarity.

Several UK organisations, from the public, private and third sectors, participated in the global work that created the Locus Charter.

The paper does not explain why this existing work has not been reused or why only a subset of the Locus Charter has been included. 

Not all individuals or decisions are the same

The paper states that it wants to help individuals make “more informed, meaningful choices” but does not recognise that not all individuals or decisions are the same.

There is no consideration of factors such as someone having no choice in whether to use a service, having low skills, being busy or stressed when they make a decision, how people’s decisions can affect other people, or how some people may be more at risk than others.

This analogy forms part of the Geospatial Commission’s guidance. It is not a useful analogy. Making food safe requires many more activities than clear packaging. For example there are controls on food ingredients, training requirements for staff, and inspections by regulators. 

The paper does not even reference the age-appropriate design code – a statutory code of practice produced by the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office.

This code was intended to help protect and empower children by ensuring that more services are designed for their needs. The design code states that online services likely to be accessed by children should have geolocation options turned off by default.

The ethics of place and communities are neglected

The paper says that location data is about people, events, and places. Unfortunately, the ethical considerations that are discussed are mostly concerned with location data about individual people, or personal location data, the ethics of place and communities are neglected.

You would look in vain if you wanted to find discussion of ethical issues such as:

  • whether and how places – such as domestic refuge centres, abortion clinics or military bases – might need to be protected to prevent harm
  • whether the UK’s regional naming systems – such as Welsh placenames, or Scottish tenement flat numbers – need to be better supported
  • whether and what decisions about the collection, sharing and of location data should be made by devolved administrations, city-regions, or the local communities that live in those places

Business models are an ethical issue but are not mentioned

Finally, many ethical issues stem from business models and incentives.

Neither the business models of the UK’s public sector geospatial agencies or those of the private sector firms, for example those in the advertising industry, that collect and manage location data are considered.

There is no discussion of whether these existing business models create harm for people or reduce the social and economic benefits that location data could create. For example, bad address data causes people to be denied credit cards and struggle to register to vote, while the sale of location data by data brokers is coming under increasing scrutiny.

The paper is unlikely to have any significant impact

These are just four gaps in the analysis. I could go on, for example there is no recognition of the distributional impacts of the benefits and risks across different places and different groups of people, but as well as the incomplete analysis the paper is unlikely to have any significant impact.

This is because of:

  • the hugely diverse range of organisations and people it needs to affect
  • it is not sufficiently grounded in how teams work
  • it does not assess existing legislation or consider legislative change

Will thousands of people in a huge range of sectors read the paper?

As the paper says location data is ubiquitous. To create impact the Geospatial Commission needs to affect the behaviour of the thousands of organisations and people that collect, share, use and maintain location data..

The paper uses examples from a huge range of sectors and disciplines: transport, wearable technology, drones, space, smart homes, healthcare, statistics, social sciences, online services, public services, private services, and the UK’s ubiquitous potholes.

A pothole in Newport on the Isle of Wight, CC-BY-3.0 by Editor5807

Are organisations and workers in all of these sectors and disciplines likely to follow the recommendations in the paper? Does the paper align with existing practices, challenges, and opportunities in their contexts? Are they even aware of the Geospatial Commission?

Insufficiently grounded in how teams work

Rather than looking at policy papers, the teams who build products and services or perform statistical analysis tend to use manuals/guides, reuse openly available code, data and design patterns, and learn from how other teams do their work.

The teams who developed the Locus Charter understand this. They blog, publish code, and have a repository of useful material.

Within the UK this is also one of the reasons why Government Digital Services worked in the open. They regularly blogged, published open source code, and created a service design manual for public services built by central government.

It is also why the Government Statistical Service created a manual for reproducible analytical pipelines (RAPs), and why the National Statistician’s Data Ethics Advisory Committee (NSDEC) publish their decisions and decision making processes. 

Consciously or not, these guides, source code and data embody particular types of ethical practices and decisions made by teams, but it is noticeable that the Geospatial Commission’s work is stuck at the level of principles and policy papers, rather than producing their own examples and guides or by embedding their proposed principles into the existing manual and guides.

It does not appear that the Geospatial Commission have thought about how to take their work to the places where digital and statistical teams do their work.

Searching the GDS design manual for location data brings up a single link about protecting user research participants

The paper does not consider legislative change

Organisations and people will also respond to legislation and regulation, but while the paper states that existing legislation provides a baseline it does not describe the existing legislation or assess whether the legal and regulatory framework needs to change.

As previously mentioned the paper does not cover the ICO’s Age Appropriate Design Code and its section on geolocation.

It also does not mention the existing legal definition of location data, under the PECR regulations, a definition which is narrower than the Geospatial Commission’s work, the accompanying guide, and the work that has taken place in multiple organisations to comply with PECR. 

The PECR definition of location data is narrower than the Geospatial Commission’s definition

The Geospatial Commission was established as an “independent, expert committee” but despite this independence the paper does not reference the UK government’s ongoing plans to reform data protection law or assess whether the changes will help or hinder the Commission’s strategy.

Meanwhile new changes to legislation are not considered in the paper. No reason for this is given.

These changes might be to help deliver on the Geospatial Commission’s objectives of economic growth, to enforce the Geospatial Commission’s proposed “ABC” building blocks, or to help protect people and communities from the increased risks that more data collection, sharing and use will cause.

Even the simplest of legal changes, such as making personal location data a new type of special category data, or powers for appropriate public sector organisations or regulators to make more reference data about places openly available and reusable, are not considered.

This paper will not help deliver the promised benefits

I am deliberately not forming opinions on whether the Geospatial Commission’s goal of creating £11bn of economic value from increased use of location data is feasible and/or desirable, but I cannot see how this paper will help.

As the Geospatial Commission correctly identified, their strategy needs to retain public trust in the use of location data. A failure to do this risks harm to people and will contribute to a failure to deliver the promised benefits. And failing to deliver those promised benefits will harm the government’s wider economic objectives. This paper will not help retain public trust and can only contribute to the inevitable failure to deliver the benefits.

Rather than an incomplete set of ethical building blocks we need more practical guidance and tools for teams to use, and an assessment of the legislative and regulatory framework that the government’s proposed larger location data market will need.