The Locus Charter

clear light bulb placed on chalkboard
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Yesterday I sat in on the launch of the Locus Charter by the Benchmark Initiative. I was more than a little sceptical about yet another initiative in the location space, I have listened to national strategy launches, addressing initiatives, new community/organisational launches and open data policies and commitments. Most of these have over promised and under delivered or fizzled out – I think the Locus Charter may be the exact opposite.

The Locus Charter is

“a proposed international set of principles and guidance for ethical and responsible practice when using location data.”

It sets out 10 simple principles that organisations are encouraged to consider when creating, collecting and using location data.

  1. People should understand and be aware when their location information is being collected
  2. Personally identifiable location data should be respected, protected and used with informed consent
  3. Good location data practice adheres to the data minimisation principle
  4. The same rights that people have in the physical world must be protected in the digital world
  5. When collecting location data relating to vulnerable people and places one should take care to balance the benefits being sought with the potential for harm
  6. Care should be taken to understand bias in the data that is collected
  7. The more context data that is combined with location data the more powerful. Measures should be put in place to prevent identification of a persons location
  8. The individual or collective location data pertaining to a people, flora or fauna should not be used to discriminate, exploit or harm
  9. People should have access to what location data is being collected about them
  10. Avoid undue intrusions into people’s lives

These principles seem pretty unarguable to me, sort of the motherhood and apple pie of geo-ethics but I can foresee them being challenging for some data collectors and business models. Setting out principles and encouraging businesses to evaluate their current data products and plans against these principles is a great way to start rather than pushing for regulation or legislation immediately. If the industry leaders (MAGFA, I’m looking at you) come on board with these principles it will encourage the rest of the players to follow.

In the panel discussion one of the questions that Denise McKenzie asked the panellists was “what was your lightbulb moment?” I have been on the edge of conversations about location and privacy for well over a decade now and have gone from a position of predicting a privacy disaster when location history was unexpectedly used as evidence in a legal or commercial dispute to taking a pretty laissez faire view about my own location history and data – it’s almost impossible to live in the digital world without dropping location breadcrumbs for businesses to hoover up!

But the lightbulb moment for me was not about personal privacy, it was when I first grasped the potential for algorithmic bias in geo applications. At FOSS4G 2017 in Boston I was listening to a talk about a Boston city programme to connect young people with internship opportunities during the summer vacations. The programme recruited a number of employers across the city who offered internships and then used a simple geospatial app to match applicants with opportunities while minimising travel distance. That sounded reasonable until you discovered that the opportunities were not uniformly spatially distributed, in fact they were clustered closer to the middle class parts of the city, so optimising on travel distance significantly disadvantaged the young people coming from poorer backgrounds who were meant to be the beneficiaries of the scheme. Simple really but probably a lesson we could all learn when building geospatial applications and covered by principle 6 in the Locus Charter.

Congratulations to Denise McKenzie and Ben Hawes for their work on the charter and respect to Ordnance Survey and the Omidyar Network for funding the Benchmark Initiative. I think this could be a tipping point in our incorporation of geo-ethics into our businesses and practices.