Who owns geospatial data? 3 issues that must be addressed

Who owns geospatial data? 3 issues that must be addressed

Geospatial data could play a vital role in tackling society’s biggest challenges. But the question of who owns it is complex, and issues around ownership are stifling its usefulness. To maximise the value of location data, a way forward must be found. Our work has revealed three key ownership issues that must be urgently addressed.

What is geospatial data?

Geospatial data describes where places, objects and people are. It can be collected in a number of different ways, including by satellite image capture, laser systems, and location sensors embedded in connected devices.

The value of such data is becoming widely recognised. From acting as a foundation for digital business models – such as ride-sharing apps – to its myriad uses in the fight against climate change, it’s increasingly vital to both the public and private sectors.

Who owns it?

The question of who owns location data is less than straightforward.

In many cases, it’s owned by the organisation that collects it. But that isn’t always so. Data protection laws mean that the subjects of data sometimes hold ownership, rather than the collectors. And what’s more, the party that owns the data may not always be able to extract full value from it without the involvement of others.

To allow us to realise the potential of location data, we must create better ownership frameworks. But what are the main problems to tackle?

Three ways to make ownership work better

Our work on geospatial data, including for the UK government’s Geospatial Commission, has showed there are three main steps to take.

1.     Facilitate sharing and transfer

Geospatial data is not always held by the party that can realise the most benefit from it. This means that sharing or transfer of ownership is often required to unlock the data’s value.

But the owner may lack the knowledge, capability or incentive to make the data accessible. Our analysis for the Geospatial Commission showed that large amounts of valuable data are generated by organisations who do not provide data as part of their service.

For example, a logistics company might accumulate useful information on transport congestion as part of its day-to-day operations. This could be used by other organisations to help vehicles make shorter, more environmentally friendly journeys. But unless the logistics company is aware of this, and has the incentive and capability to share its data, this useful asset will go unused.

It’s therefore crucial that there’s a shift in mindset – and that appropriate financial incentives are put in place.

Given the diversity of the geospatial ecosystem, these incentives will need to be tailored to specific contexts. It will also be important to intervene only where demand for data will be high in the future – this will be determined by the data’s accuracy, its coverage and the volume of decisions it can inform.

2.     Combine data from different sources

The full value of location data is often only unlocked when different datasets are combined. For example, the public sector response to the COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the increased the importance of interoperability and has highlighted new use cases which require linking different spatial datasets to other forms of information. This could include integrating data across multiple departments on individuals’ health and housing status.

But when a large number of different parties own important datasets, interlinking them is difficult to coordinate. And interoperability between different sources isn’t guaranteed.

Geospatial data is increasingly collected by multiple private sector organisations, rather than by a single public authority, so this coordination issue is set to become more complex. It’s therefore vital that effective mechanisms and platforms are developed which allow for an equitable exchange and/or combination of data to unlock potential value. 

3.     Build trust

Where geospatial data is personal in nature – like the movement patterns of specific individuals – trust in how that data is used is critical.

Our examination into the role of trust, on behalf of the Open Data Institute, revealed that for data sharing to take place, subjects must have trust in the organisations who hold information on them.

If this trust breaks down, the value that can be derived from geospatial data will be diminished. For example, if road users are less inclined to share their routes with public or private organisations, a valuable source of information on infrastructure could be lost.

It’s therefore important that data owners and stewards proactively engage with the public, to ensure there’s transparency about how people’s geospatial data will be used.

Ownership issues must be tackled now

The use of location data is growing quickly, across sectors and industries, and its potential to create positive change is vast. But the ownership issues we’ve highlighted – sharing, integration and trust – must be urgently addressed before they become too complex to unknot.

For more information on our work with the UK government’s Geospatial Commission, which touches on these issues, click here.