Using location data responsibly in cities and local government

Article by Ben Hawes: “City and local governments increasingly recognise the power of location data to help them deliver more and better services, exactly where and when they are needed. The use of this data is going to grow, with more pressure to manage resources and emerging challenges including responding to extreme weather events and other climate impacts.

But using location data to target and manage local services comes with risks to the equitable delivery of services, privacy and accountability. To make the best use of these growing data resources, city leaders and their teams need to understand those risks and address them, and to be able to explain their uses of data to citizens.

The Locus Charter, launched earlier this year, is a set of common principles to promote responsible practice when using location data. The Charter could be very valuable to local governments, to help them navigate the challenges and realise the rewards offered by data about the places they manage….

Compared to private companies, local public bodies already have special responsibilities to ensure transparency and fairness. New sources of data can help, but can also generate new questions. Local governments have generally been able to improve services as they learned more about the people they served. Now they must manage the risks of knowing too much about people, and acting intrusively. They can also risk distorting service provision because their data about people in places is uneven or unrepresentative.

Many city and local governments fully recognise that data-driven delivery comes with risks, and are developing specific local data ethics frameworks to guide their work. Some of these, like Kansas City’s, are specifically aimed at managing data privacy. Others cover broader uses of data, like Greater Manchester’s Declaration for Intelligent and Responsible Data Practice (DTPR). DTPR is an open source communication standard that helps people understand how data is being used in public places.

London is engaging citizens on an Emerging Technology Charter, to explore new and ethically charged questions around data. Govlab supports an AI Localism repository of actions taken by local decision-makers to address the use of AI within a city or community. The EU Sherpa programme (Shaping the Ethical Dimensions of Smart Information Systems) includes a smart cities strand, and has published a case-study on the Ethics of Using Smart City AI and Big Data.

Smart city applications make it potentially possible to collect data in many ways, for many purposes, but the technologies cannot answer questions about what is appropriate. In The Smart Enough City: Putting Technology in its Place to Reclaim Our Urban Future (2019), author Ben Green describes examples when some cities have failed and others succeeded in judging what smart applications should be used.

Attention to what constitutes ethical practice with location data can give additional help to leaders making that kind of judgement….(More)”