Using location data responsibly in practice

Lil Patuck

We’re delighted to have been selected to be part of Geovation’s Entrepreneur-in-Residence programme to build an interactive learning tool to help practitioners in location-based technologies – Navigate

The programme, which has been funded by Omidyar Network, is part of Geovation’s wider Benchmark Initiative and is supporting leading innovators to explore and develop solutions to geospatial data ethics.

What’s the problem with geospatial data? 

Location data is rapidly becoming a mainstay in society. It’s changing the way we play games (think Pokemon Go). We use it to tag images and check-in to places on social media, to get local weather and traffic updates and map routes. It’s helping companies like taxi and delivery services distribute their resources more smartly and optimise pricing. It has led to waves of new innovation, opportunities and companies are sure to continue harnessing it to improve our online experiences. 

But it has also created a host of unintended consequences. And these can be both positive and negative. The data collected by wearable fitness trackers might help to catch a criminal. But the same kind of data has allowed stalkers to locate and attack their victims.

Such systems may also entrench existing inequalities – while location data can support increasingly personalised experiences, it can also be used to target and discriminate and leave vulnerable people at risk. Snapchat’s map feature has led to concerns around stalking and bullying, Citymapper has been leading vulnerable people down dark alleyways late at night for years, and apps like Pokemon Go have brought about a disproportionate increase in vehicular crashes and personal injuries where users are playing such games while driving.

Distractions can kill
Daren Fentiman/Zuma/Eyevine

Helping practitioners in location-based tech innovate responsibly

Despite its widespread use, the potential impact of geospatial data often gets little consideration and is much less scrutinised than the use of financial and health data. There is currently no formal process for practitioners in location-based technologies to maximise the positives and mitigate potential harms. This is a missed opportunity. 

So as one of four teams that make up the Benchmark Initiatives’ Entrepreneur-in-Residence Programme, all working on innovative ways of dealing with ethical and practical challenges around location data, we are building Navigate – an interactive learning tool to help practitioners in location-based technologies. 

Navigate builds on the tools and processes we have built within TechTransformed, our programme for responsible innovators and will support them to learn from past mistakes, surface and understand potential unintended consequences and design for more ethical geospatial products that will serve users and society at large in the long term.

What comes next? 

Last night we joined the other finalists at Geovation’s headquarters in London to present our plan for Navigate where Programme Lead, Sam Brown, introduced the project. And you can view the presentations from the other entrepreneurs on the programme here.  

Then from April onwards, we’ll be conducting research into the wider implications of geospatial data and exploring how best to intervene in product iteration cycles to mitigate the consequences of using geospatial data.

By the end of summer 2020, we will have a fully functional learning tool for responsible innovators to use. 

If you’d like to get involved or find out more, get in touch at [email protected].