02 Mar 2021

Who owns Geospatial Data?

Nick Fitzpatrick, Manager, Frontier Economics discusses why ownership is a critical component of the conversation about getting the most out of geospatial data for the public good. Part of techUK's #GeospatialFuture campaign week


Geospatial data

Geospatial data describes where places, objects and people are. It takes different forms and can for example relate to specific addresses, larger geographic areas, or peoples’ locations. It includes foundational geospatial data where information is a key feature of the data’s purpose, as well as positional data that describes activity grounded in a specific place, as well as geospatial identifiers that provide a means of linking different datasets.

Locational data can be collected in a number of different ways including by satellite constellations which capture imagery, lidar systems which use lasers to assess the location and of nearby objects and location sensors embedded in connected devices.

The question of ownership in relation to geospatial data is complex. In many cases the data is owned by the organisation that collects the data. However, this is not always the case. Data protection laws convey ownership of personal data back to the data subjects. In addition, the data owner may not always be able to extract full value from their data asset independently.

We focus in this post on why ownership is a critical component of the conversation about getting the most out of geospatial data for the public good.

Key insights

  1. In many cases the value of geospatial data use may extend beyond the data owner. Geospatial data is not always held or owned by the party that can realise the associated benefits such as improved productivity and inclusion. This implies that some data sharing and transfer of ownership is need to unlock the value of geospatial data. However, the owner may not have the insight, capability or incentive to make that data accessible. Our analysis for the Geospatial Commission[2] showed that large amounts of potentially valuable data is generated by public and private sector organisations for whom provision of data is not considered part of their core service. In these cases geospatial data owners may be unaware of the potential demand that exists for the assets they hold and the concept of data stewarding may not be something they recognise. For example, organisations who carry out operational activities such as tax collection or provision of logistical support for business may accumulate useful geospatial data over time. This could include data on the extent of property boundaries or detailed historic data on transport network congestion patters. However, unless there is a shift in mindset and appropriate financial incentives put in place, there is a risk that this data remains inaccessible. Given the diversity within the geospatial ecosystem it is likely that these incentives and remedies will need to be tailored to match specific contexts. It will be important to only intervene where the potential demand for the underlying geospatial asset is likely to be high in the future. Demand will depend on a range of factors including the volumes of decisions which the geospatial data can inform, the coverage of the data and the accuracy of the data.
  2. Ownership of geospatial data may be dispersed and it may only be when different datasets are combined that the full value of the data is unlocked. Previous work has highlighted the value of integrating multiple sources of data together (both geospatial and non-geospatial) to produce novel insights. When a large number of parties own key sources of geospatial data this type of data interlinking becomes more difficult to coordinate and interoperability between different sources is not guaranteed. As more geospatial data is increasingly collected by multiple private sector organisations rather than a single public authority this coordination issue could become more complex. 
  3. Where geospatial data is personal data (for example the movement patterns of specific individuals) and hence individuals have concerns about privacy, trust in data use is critical to ensure that the data can be used transparently for valuable purposes. Our examination into the role of trust in data ecosystems on behalf of the Open Data Institute (ODI)  revealed that many factors need to be in place simultaneously in order for data sharing to take place. Potential data users need to have faith in the quality of data held by data owners. It is crucial that data subjects have trust in the organisations who hold geospatial information on them. If this trusts breaks down there will be significant negative impacts on data sharing and the potential value that can be derived from geospatial data will be diminished. For example, if road users are less included to share their routes with public or private sector organisations a valuable source of information on congestion and the need for additional infrastructure could be lost. This serves to emphasise the importance of geospatial data owners and stewards proactively engaging with the wider public as a priority to ensure that there is transparency regarding intended uses of data.

For more information on our work with the Geospatial Commission, please click here.

Nick Fitzpatrick, Manager, Frontier Economics is the author of the insight. You can learn more about Frontier Economics Technology work here

You can read more insights from techUK's #GeospatialFuture campaign here!

Laura Foster

Laura Foster

Head of Technology and Innovation, techUK

Laura is techUK’s Head of Programme for Technology and Innovation.

She supports the application and expansion of emerging technologies, including Quantum Computing, High-Performance Computing, AR/VR/XR and Edge technologies, across the UK. As part of this, she works alongside techUK members and UK Government to champion long-term and sustainable innovation policy that will ensure the UK is a pioneer in science and technology

Before joining techUK, Laura worked internationally as a conference researcher and producer covering enterprise adoption of emerging technologies. This included being part of the strategic team at London Tech Week.

Laura has a degree in History (BA Hons) from Durham University, focussing on regional social history. Outside of work she loves reading, travelling and supporting rugby team St. Helens, where she is from.

[email protected]

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