Saturday, April 2, 2011

More Work To Be Done

I recently attended two conferences related to location technology. The first, “Mobile Devices, Location Technologies and Shifting Values was hosted by the Center on Law and Information Policy on March 25, 2011 at the Fordham Law School and focused on the legal and policy issues associated with location and mobile devices. The second, “Enterprise Strategies for Location Intelligence”, hosted by the on March 30-31, addressed the challenges businesses will face in trying to integrate location information into their enterprises.

Both of the events were well run and I learned a good deal. However, I was also struck by the disconnect between the issues the legal community seem to be focused on and the issues facing the business and technology community with respect to location technology.

Privacy. Not surprisingly, location privacy was a major issue at the ‘Mobile Devices’ symposium. There were two panels focused entirely on privacy issues – one from a consumer/business standpoint, the other from a government use of location standpoint. Several well known privacy experts, such as Jules Polenetsky, Co-Chair and Director, Future of Privacy Forum, Lorrie Cranor, Associate Professor of Computer Science, Carnegie Mellon University, Orin Kerr, Professor of Law at George Washington University and Susan Freiwald, Professor of Law, University of San Francisco Law gave excellent talks. Maneesha Mithal, Director of the Division of Privacy and Identity Presentation, from the Federal Trade Commission gave an informative presentation on the FTC’s position and I really enjoyed Shane O’Neill’s (CTO, Fandango, Inc.) approach to technology and privacy.

Privacy was also an important issue at the ‘Enterprise Strategies’ conference. However, while the starting point for the discussion at the ‘Mobile Devices’ symposium appears to have been that location privacy (not defined) was sensitive information to be protected, the attendees at the ‘Enterprise Strategies’ conference were struggling with the more fundamental question of which of the many types of location and other spatial information being collected should be considered sensitive – and subject to regulation. For example, one participant asked whether unsolicited text messages to your mobile device based upon your location should be treated differently than unsolicited advertisements and coupons a person receives in their mail at home based upon where they live? The implication was that perhaps there needs to be a baseline discussion of what privacy is from location standpoint and whether expectations should change based upon new technology before attempting to develop legislation and regulation.

Big Data. The rapid growth in both the availability and importance of data (‘Big Data’) was a major discussion point at the ‘Enterprise Strategies’ conference. Almost every speaker talked about the struggle to deal with the vast quantities of data that exists now, and how this challenge will only grow due to the rapid deployment of all types of sensors and mobile devices. (One slide referenced a study that found that 90% of the data that has ever been collected was generated in the last two years!) From a legal standpoint, Big Data raises a number of complex and challenging issues, including protecting intellectual property rights in spatial data and data products as well as the complexities of spatial data licenses.

There was a panel on intellectual property rights at the ‘Mobile Devices’ symposium, however, it did not deal at all with issues associated with spatial data. Instead, it focused primarily on software issues and the challenges associated with licensing media (video, music, books). While these issues are certainly important in a mobile context, and provide a number of unique legal and policy challenges, I believe the issues associated with spatial data are just as important. Moreover, ultimately they may prove to even more challenging, particularly since the law is more ambiguous with respect to many types of spatial data and related products (e.g. copyright).

Data Quality. Another important topic at the ‘Enterprise Strategies’ conference was the growing importance for non-geospatial professionals to be able to collect and use spatial data. There are two primary factors driving this requirement. First, there are simply too few trained geospatial professionals to deal with the volume of spatial data that is being collected now and will be collected in the future. Moreover, if spatial data is not easy to find and use, non-geospatial professionals will have neither the time nor the inclination to fully and properly integrate the data into business intelligence and business operations. It is understandable why pushing the collection and use of spatial data to non-geospatial professionals is important from a business standpoint. However, it also raises a concern as to data quality/data use issues. For example, who will decide if these new collectors and users of spatial data have the requisite skills and experience? What is the potential liability to a corporation if the data is improperly collected and/or used? What measures can a company take to mitigate its risk? These issues will become even more important in a future world of ‘Big Data’!

Unfortunately, issues of data quality and potential liability were not a major topic at the “Mobile Devices’ symposium. There were no panels focused on the issue nor were there any speakers with an expertise on these matters. Perhaps this is not surprising given the focus of the symposium appeared to be more on consumer devices and applications. However, the legal community will need to do more to help businesses understand the risks associated with this new environment.

Location is More Than Social Media. I noted with some amusement that many times at the ‘Mobile Devices’ symposium a discussion initially focused on location became caught up in a larger discussion of the pros and cons of social media in general. Soon the issues being discussed had very little to do with location or even mobile devices.

While location is increasingly becoming a key component of social media, it was clear from the ‘Enterprise Strategies’ conference that the legal issues associated with spatial data are much broader and in many ways more challenging and complex. Location and other types of spatial data will become critical components of the smart grid and intelligent transportation systems. Speakers showed how it is already extensively used in such business sectors as agriculture and finance. The legal community still has work to do to helping businesses in these industries deal with the legal issues that will inevitably arise.