Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Will A "Geo-Divide" Arise Between Nations In The Future?

Recently I was asked to provide my perspective on emerging trends in geospatial information management. Specifically, I was asked to look out five and then 10 years and give my thoughts on how things might look. My thoughts are below.

The benefits that a ‘location-enabled’ society can provide for economic growth, technological innovation, improved government services and an engaged citizenry are becoming increasingly clear.  However it is important to recognize that a healthy geospatial ecosystem needs consistent and transparent laws and policies that support the collection, use, storage, transfer, analysis and display of spatially-enabled data from various public and private sources. Such a legal and policy framework must be broad-based, cutting across both legal domains as well as technology platforms.  In the absence of such a framework internationally, I believe we are likely to see a ‘geo-divide’ between nations over the next ten years.

Five Years

In five years, I fear there will be a great deal of uncertainty and confusion in many parts of the world with regards to the collection, use and distribution of geospatial data. This uncertainty will be the result of inconsistent and conflicting laws and policies, governing structures that don’t evolve to keep up with technological developments, as well as inadequate government funding. In five years, legal and policy communities in most countries will finally be coming to grips with the power of geospatial technology and some of the unique aspects of geospatial data. However, in most areas of the world a consistent and transparent legal and policy framework will not have developed with regards to such matters as privacy, national security, liability and intellectual property. As a result, many businesses and government agencies will be confused on such matters as to (i) what geospatial data they will be permitted to collect, (ii) whether they can aggregate various data sets, (iii) what privacy, data quality and information security procedures they should follow, (iv) what steps they will be required to take before transferring geospatial data to third parties, (iv) what are the risks associated with offering products or services with geospatial data that is incomplete, inaccurate or not suited for a particular use, and (iv) what is their potential liability with regards to these or other potential issues.

Such uncertainty and confusion will be a challenge for both government agencies and businesses. Government agencies will struggle to offer the improved services that their citizens will come to believe possible with the broad availability of geospatial technology. Companies will be unwilling to develop certain geospatial products and services due to concerns over being punished or sued. Some consumers will be unwilling to use important new location-enabled products or services due to media reports over privacy concerns. Moreover, services based upon the use of geolocation information will be less efficient due to restrictions on internet access or data transfers.

Ten Years

In ten years, I believe there will be a clear divide between ‘winning’ and ‘losing’ nations with respect to the adoption of geospatial technology. The winners will have developed legal and policy frameworks that will result in ‘location-enabled’ societies. These nations will have strong economies, fueled in part by jobs created from the many new products and services that can be offered due to the vast amounts of geospatial data available. For example, new companies will be built providing products and services for such location-enabled industries as the smart grid, intelligent transportation systems and precision agriculture. Citizens in these societies will live in safer smart cities, with cutting-edge infrastructure and open and transparent governments. These governments will use geospatial technology to deliver more efficient and timely services while still protecting their citizens from unwarranted government intrusion. Effective use of geospatial technology will provide increased public safety and allow such nations to better prepare for and respond to natural disasters. ‘Location-enabled’ societies will be the leaders globally on transnational issues, such as protecting natural resources, understanding climate change, addressing poverty and preventing the spread of infectious disease. The adoption of geospatial technologies will enhance the contour of the relationship between the government and their citizens.

The losers will be those nations in which there is a lack of geospatial data available due to overly burdensome collection, use and transfer laws and policies. Such restrictions may arise due to concerns over privacy, national security or in an effort to protect local industry. These nations will not have the many benefits associated with a ‘location-enabled’ society. In these countries government officials in one agency will be afraid to share data with other government agencies. Collection of many types of geospatial data by private businesses will be limited due to heavy regulation, data transfer restrictions or inadequate protection of intellectual property rights. In addition, companies will be unwilling to store or use geospatial data in these countries due to liability concerns. Some governments will use geospatial technology as a means to monitor or restrict the movements and personal interactions of their citizens. As a result, individuals will be unwilling to adopt new applications involving their location for fear that this information will be shared with authorities. Over time, businesses will pull operations from these companies due to increased costs, concerns over liability, and public pressure not to support repressive regimes.


Unknown said...

Good post Kevin.

Your concern that people will start to decline giving geo related data because it leads to policies restricting their own movement will do something else I think.

It will give rise to a whole new industry of geo-spoofing technologies that can be used to provide, avoid, alter, jam and otherwise information. The consequence of which will be poorer data reliability in the future from consumers - and ultimtely impacting any consumer related data products.

Jeff Thurston

Kevin said...


I agree. In fact, we are starting to see jamming technologies that not only impact the invidiual user but also nearby technology. I recently read a story about an airport (I believe it was Newark Airport) that is having problems because truck drivers use GPS jamming devices.

by James said...

Sadly, international frameworks are hard to come by in any sphere! There will always be exceptions, abstentions, opt-outs and so on.

Most of the 'geospatial' data of which you (and I) expect to yield so much benefit is I suspect really data with location attributes; what is needed is consistent geo frameworks to hang all that valuable stuff on. For the rest its a case of understanding requirements and assimilating data to meet them.

So there will be different legal, licensing, IP and related frameworks across different jurisdictions and between different data sources. We take that as a given while supporting calls for simplicity and standards and sharing of best practice.

There is a continuing explosion in all types of data including both geospatial and data with location attributes (everything happens somewhere right) and this is set to continue in all territories in one form or another; the new generation of remote sensing satellites and the tools to extract useful geospatial data from them will see to that while other tools and platforms of varying degrees of maturity (be it sensor webs, cctv, social media etc etc) will facilitate a lot of the rest. Discovering what is available, what suits the problem at hand and then developing a 'solution' to that problem/issue/challenge will continue to happen in all territories at different paces using these and other data sources driven by many factors of legal, cultural and technical frameworks are but three examples. And given that many really high value applications have as an input some proprietary data and a proprietary or at least customised way in which the data is to be assembled and analysed in pursuit of insight, performance, productivity and profit there is a risk of over-stating the limitations of the absence of legal and policy frameworks as enablers of social and economic good.

There seems to be an implicit expectation within your 10 year horizon that "good" data frameworks will liberate all involved while "bad" frameworks carry an Orwellian tag and that by implication the more data that is more open and freely exchanged at every level (and again by implication this demands that corporates and individuals cede their right to privacy to the greater 'good') the 'better' it will be. As the Boomtown Rats reminded me only this morning there's always "Someone looking at you" (even in 1980) and we would be naive in the extreme to assume that the (increasingly privatised, in terms of who we divulge our information to or who hoovers up our data exhaust) surveillance society into which we are sleepwalking is a benign entity or that the crowd offer a powerful enough antidote to its potential for malevolence.

Abdul Basit said...

I think yes it will works in future

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